Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua are home to rigged elections and brutal dictators. These regimes have triggered unprecedented refugee crises and paid the price for their abuses and corruption in diplomatic and economic isolation. Rightfully so. But there’s a fourth Latin American government that has denied its people democracy and fueled a mass exodus without facing anywhere near the same international pressure: Honduras.
Now, that needs to change. As Honduras gears up for new elections, the U.S. government has the tools to help prevent the past from repeating itself. Just weeks from the White House’s global Summit for Democracy, President Biden should make the case that Honduran democracy is not up for negotiation.
For years, Washington failed to prevent the National Party, led by President Juan Orlando Hernández, from dismantling democracy. While President Obama applied diplomatic pressure and assisted civil society to contain corruption, President Trump ignored Hernández’s bad behavior and froze pro-democracy assistance to Central America. Ultimately, however, both struck a similar bargain: work with the corrupt ruling party in hopes of maintaining stability—at least enough to stem the ceaseless flow of asylum-seekers northward.
That gamble has failed, precisely because the top priority of the National Party is not stability but staying in power.
They also captured the courts and bent rules on term limits. Free from oversight, they spun a web of corruption rivaling those of Venezuela’s Maduro and Nicaragua’s Ortega, funneling millions through fake nonprofits disguised as efforts to help the poor.
Meanwhile, drug cartels penetrated the state. U.S. federal prosecutors—who in March sentenced Juan Orlando’s brother, Tony, to three decades in prison for cocaine trafficking—revealed that Honduran military and police officials were in on the deal. The president, the prosecutors claim, was a co-conspirator in his brother’s crimes.
Against this backdrop, Hondurans are already voting with their feet. In 2021, over 300,000 Hondurans have been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. As in Venezuela, the displacement of desperate refugees has perversely served to preserve Hernández’s hold on power.
Enter Honduras’ November 28 elections. After two terms, Hernández is stepping aside and backing a National Party successor, Tegucigalpa mayor Nasry “Tito” Asfura. The problem is Asfura promises no real change. He is accused of embezzling $1 million and implicated in shady offshore money transfers revealed by the Pandora Papers.
For many, however, the opposition frontrunners are nearly as unnerving. Representing the Liberal Party, Yani Rosenthal just served three years in U.S. prison for laundering drug money. The leader of the pack is Xiomara Castro, wife of leftist ex-president Manuel Zelaya, who weakened Honduran democracy before his 2009 ouster by opposition lawmakers and the military. Castro recently softened her anti-business rhetoric and promised to seek help from the UN to fight corruption. But her LIBRE party has a history of flirting with Venezuela’s dictatorship, and she has promised to deepen ties with China while terminating Honduras’ recognition of Taiwan.
As of October, polls put Castro and Asfura neck and neck. But President Hernández has powerful incentives to keep his party in power – namely because he could face prison time if he loses.
His allies are already working to tip the scales. The National Party-dominated Supreme Court refused to send the corruption case against Asfura to trial. National Party legislators shelved election authorities’ budget requests and denied millions new identity cards needed to vote. On November 4, police arrested Santos Orellana, an independent presidential candidate who was also among the first to publicly link Hernández’s brother to drug traffickers.
Meanwhile, Hernández is nonetheless intent on taking out an insurance policy. He recently met with Ortega in neighboring Nicaragua, where he was suspected of negotiating his exile to evade prosecution in the event of an opposition win.
Fortunately, there’s still time for Democrats and Republicans to work together to support democracy and the Honduran people. If the Organization of American States finds the November 28 contest fraudulent, the Biden administration should be prepared to corral a unified international rejection of the usurper’s sham victory. Hondurans will no doubt take to the streets, but as in 2013 and 2017, the protesters’ efforts will be in vain unless they have the backing of the world’s leading democracies—and all the leverage that such diplomatic and economic might entail.
Next, Senate Republicans should prioritize confirming Laura Farnsworth Dogu, President Biden's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Honduras, a post left vacant since 2017. Accelerating her confirmation would send a signal that both sides of the aisle take Honduras seriously. Needless obstruction would do the opposite.
Finally, the Biden administration should redouble efforts to protect and empower prosecutors, judges, and journalists who have made tremendous strides in uncovering corruption. Where cases don’t advance in Honduran courts, the U.S. government should freeze assets, revoke travel visas, and enforce sanctions, while pursuing probes and indictments against individuals accused of transnational crimes, starting with Hernández.
A victory for the opposition will not automatically bring back Honduran democracy from the dead. If Castro wins, Washington will need carrots and sticks to hold her to her promise to rebuild democratic institutions. But one thing is already clear: betting on the National Party to deliver stability is a losing formula—one that neither Americans nor Hondurans can afford.
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