Disputed election stirs protests in Honduras

Jan. 2018 Honduras Jan. 6
Opposition’s rally in San Pedro Sula on Jan. 6. Photo by CNN.com.


On Jan. 27, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is scheduled to be inaugurated for an unprecedented second term. Elections held Nov. 26 were disputed as both Hernández and challenger Salvador Nasralla claimed victory, and the Organization of American States has called for a new election. Hernández’s government cracked down on unrest in the weeks after the vote, and at least 30 Hondurans were killed and hundreds imprisoned.

Irregularities emerged while the votes were being counted. Nasralla emerged with what was described by experts as an “irreversible” lead, before the computer voting system stopped functioning for several hours. When the system came back on line, Hernández had gained a slim lead, which he would maintain throughout the counting.

In the days after the changed result, the popular response began as a traditional Latin American cacerolazo, a noisy but nonviolent demonstration banging pots and pans. They quickly escalated to barricades and seizures of toll booths. A 10-day curfew was enforced mostly in pro-Nasralla areas in early December. Militarized police, developed as part of Hernández’s “mano dura” (iron fist) policy to combat gangs, were turned against the civilian population. There was even a brief period when the police refused to enforce the curfew in several cities.

Protests grew to include burning tires and barricaded highways, including as much as 80% of the youth in cities despite authorities firing with live ammunition, but flagged as the month wore on. By Dec. 17 Hernández’s government was declared the winner, and plans have moved ahead for a second inauguration.

Nasralla’s coalition has remained defiant, and filed numerous appeals to the electoral tribunal, which is controlled by Hernández’s National Party. Not surprisingly, they have all been refused. On Jan. 6, tens of thousands marched and rallied in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, in conjunction with Nasralla’s call for nationwide mobilizations and a national strike. Former president Manuel Zelaya declared, “Nobody should obey a usurper government.”

Jan. 2018 Nasralla
Salvador Nazralla addresses Jan. 6 protest rally in San Pedro Sula. Ex-president Manuel Zelaya stands behind him.

No resident of Honduras has ever run for re-election. Anyone who has already held executive power is barred by the Constitution from becoming president, and there is a provision that immediately removes any sitting president who suggests changing this rule. This was the pretext for the 2009 coup d’etat that removed Zelaya, who had called for a referendum to hold a constituent assembly, from office. But Hernández was able to pack the Supreme Court with his allies, and in 2015 they overruled this provision and opened the door to his second term.

The 2009 coup was quickly legitimated by the State Department led by Hillary Clinton. Zelaya was viewed as a second Hugo Chávez, and the Obama administration wanted to clamp down on the anti-neoliberal turn spreading to Central America.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have courted Hernández as an ally. Honduras has received over $114 million in security-related aid from the United States in the past eight years, and Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly is a key ally of Hernández. While the recent repression was ongoing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified the country’s human rights record, allowing military funding to continue, and has endorsed Hernández as the winner of the election. The elite security forces funded and trained by U.S. dollars, the Cobras and TIGRES, are the same units that cracked down on dissent.

Hernández, who positions himself mostly as being tough on crime, weathered mass protests and demands for his resignation in 2015 when it came out that Social Security funds had been misappropriated for his election campaign. His government survived by arresting several top officials for bribery and defrauding customs funds. He is the prototype of the new right-wing alliance in Latin America between local landowners and neoliberal financial elites as the “Pink Tide” of social democratic governments has receded. His government has been a student of neoliberal capitalism, attacking wages while raising the sales taxes.

The government has been complicit in a string of murders of indigenous and environmental activists. Since the 2009 coup, 123 land or environmental activists have been murdered. Most opposed development plans that benefit companies owned by relatives of politicians. The most famous victim of this violence was Berta Cáceres, who had won international acclaim for her opposition to logging, dams, and other projects that threatened indigenous lands. Cáceres was assassinated in March 2016. Of eight men arrested for her murder, two received military training in the United States at the former School of the Americas.

Nasralla is a television personality known as a sports announcer and game show presenter, who came into politics as the leader of the new Anti-Corruption Party during the presidency of Porfirio Lobo. He also spent time as the CEO of Pepsi Honduras, making him a curious ally of Zelaya, who was considered part of the “Pink Tide.” His 2017 candidacy was on the basis of the Alliance of the Opposition against the Dictatorship, known in Spanish as Alianza, which has a constituent assembly as its central demand.

Corruption in today’s Honduras is systemic rather than individual. There is an extensive network linking government, private businesses, and organized crime. Companies with government ties are given inflated contracts and offer proxy shares to the handful of families who control most private enterprise in Honduras, and money laundering to the criminal gangs. Drug trafficking is extremely lucrative in Honduras, which is the route for most cocaine coming from Latin America to the United States. Such links go to the highest level; Hernández’s brother Tony has been linked to drug cartels.

These networks are, of course, international. The same machinery that allows the capitalist class to hide much of its money in offshore tax havens also allows politicians and criminals to conceal the public funds they appropriate. Hernández has also used the national secrets law in an unprecedented fashion to obscure the money flows. International capitalism, of course, has encouraged this pattern as the post-coup governments declared Honduras “open for business.”

Alianza has no program other than its opposition to Hernández. Nasralla’s personal appeal is to a middle class sick of corruption, as the rule of law is so degraded that police run protection rackets indistinguishable from the criminal gangs. The coalition has come to prominence in the political vacuum left by the rift in the Liberal Party after the 2009 coup. Zelaya had won as the Liberal candidate in 2005, but when he was overthrown four years later, he was replaced by Roberto Micheletti, also of the Liberal Party.

Zelaya’s backing of this thoroughly middle-class candidate was based on the hope of a constituent assembly that would allow many of the inadequacies of the 1980 constitution to be corrected. But there was little chance of this happening under Nasralla, who mostly wanted the idea of the constituyente as a rhetorical weapon. There was no prospect of a new progressive turn from an Alianza government.

The Honduran people showed tremendous resistance against the electoral fraud, and for several days had brought the country to a standstill. It is transparent that Hernández stole the election; tapes had been received by The Economist before the election with instructions being given to stuff ballot boxes for the president’s re-election. Rather than continuing the insurrectionary protests of December, Alianza vacillated over recount strategies and international support, and lost the initiative.

Bringing down Hernández’s government will require a national mobilization and strike. It is imperative for democracy in Honduras to hold new elections without Hernández or the electoral tribunal that abetted his electoral fraud. Such a process would need to address the deep-seated problems in Honduran society, primary among them the severe inequality that sees almost 63% of its people living below the poverty line.

The fall of Hernández itself will not improve conditions in Honduras. There is a need to end the worst excesses of capital and guarantee the right of labor to organize. But the underlying issues will not go away without building a new society free of the exploitation of capitalism. Honduras needs a revolutionary socialist party as part of a revolutionary international that fights against capital around the world.

In the United States, socialists have a special obligation to object to the imperialist U.S. government’s role in the current state of Honduras. American dollars go to fund the militarized police there, and American companies profit from the despoiling of the nation. The Obama and Trump administrations have both supported the post-coup governments and whitewashed the decline of democracy in Honduras. No military aid to coup governments! Solidarity with the Honduran people!

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