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Latin America

Post-election turmoil in Honduras a throw-back to 'Banana Republic' days

Three weeks after a botched election, street protests and allegations of fraud have heaped doubt on any chance of a credible result from the Nov 26 election. Long term instability could lead to a surge in migration, analysts warn.
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17 Dic 2017 – 10:39 AM EST
El candidato presidencial opositor Salvador Nasralla está llamando a más protestas. Las pérdidas económicas se calculan en 63 millones de dólares, según la Cámara de Seguros hondureña. Crédito: Efe

Three weeks after a botched presidential election Honduras appears to be in danger of reverting back to its century-old image as the original 'banana republic,' in which a U.S.-backed caudillo rides roughshod over democracy and the United States turns a blind eye.

At least that is the dangerous perception that is growing on the streets of Honduras, according to political analysts.

"There is a very anti-U.S. state of mind over the double standard that many people see in the U.S. conduct," said Victor Meza, a political analyst and director of the Honduras Documentation Center (CEDOH), who compared docile U.S. policy in Honduras to its strong denunciation of leftist leaders in the region.

On Sunday, President Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner of the Nov. 26 election by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), amid the opposition’s allegations of vote fraud. According to the court’s official count, Hernandez won with 42.95 percent to 41.42 for runner-up Salvador Nasralla, who challenged the result and said he would not recognize it.

The U.S. State Department has made little comment about the election turmoil, raising speculation that its close ties with Hernández, a key U.S. ally in regional security and immigration policy, was influencing its silence.

Protests since the election have resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people and 1,675 arrests, according to the country's human rights commission.

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In a tragic twist to the political crisis, Hernández' sister, and key adviser was killed Saturday in a helicopter accident. Hilda Hernández, served in the government as Communications Minister, and her death could cause a temporary lull in the protests.

But after Sunday's announcement of the result the opposition called for nationwide protests and Nasralla flew to Washington to meet with the State Department and the Organization of American States.

A desperately poor country with a population just under 10 million, Honduras is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid in Latin America, in large part due to deep-rooted gang violence and drug trafficking that has sparked mass migration to the United States.

Critics point to the inept handling of the crisis by the State Department. Last weekend, the deputy chief at the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, Heide Fulton, appeared at a press conference next to the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, David Matamoros, a close ally of Hernández and the target of harsh criticism for his handling of the election.

Saying she was there "to observe this important process," her presence only fueled concerns about the U.S. role in Honduras. Fulton spoke of the importance of reaching a "credible and transparent" conclusion to the election "that reflects the will of the Honduran people."

But, her seemingly impartial words were not enough to alter the awkward optics of a senior U.S. official appearing at the side of one of the country's least trusted figures.

Perception problem

“There is a problem of perception. The Honduran people believe the Trump administration supports President Hernández, when, in fact, we should support a free and fair process, not a particular candidate," U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, one of Congress' most influential voices on foreign policy, told Univision before Sunday's results were announced.

The veteran Democrat from Vermont who is Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted "there are half a dozen elections planned in Latin America next year (including Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia) and it’s important for the United States to get this right, given our history of meddling in that part of the world."

In what critics say was another blunder, two days after the election the State Department approved the Hernández government for future U.S. funding, certifying that it was meeting human rights conditions, and making efforts to improve transparency and tackle corruption.

“I don’t believe that our country is trying to manipulate the vote tally. But sometimes perception is as important as reality," said Leahy, who called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to spell out the U.S. position.

"He should make an unequivocal statement that we do not favor any candidate, and that we will not support the outcome unless it is recognized and accepted by international observers as the result of a fair and transparent process. Otherwise, the perception will be that the United States did not do what we should have done, the Honduran people will remain deeply divided, and the country will face a very difficult future,” he said.

The original 'banana republic'

As Leahy highlighted, U.S. history in the region is tainted by support for repressive, right-wing regimes.

The term 'banana republic' dates back to early last century and was coined by a witty American author O. Henry who visited Honduras and observed the enormous influence of multinational American fruit corporations such as the United Fruit Company.

In 1911, Alabama businessman Sam 'the Banana Man' Zemurray conspired to overthrow the government of Honduras and install a military government friendly to U.S. fruit exporters.

Decades later, in 1975, another U.S. fruit company owner, Eli Black, was implicated in a $2.5 million bribe to the Honduran president Oswaldo López Arellano to reduce taxes on banana exports. Black famously jumped to his death from the 44th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper.

In the 1980s the Central American nation was dubbed 'USS Honduras' due to the large presence of CIA agents and U.S. military advisers involved in the covert Contra war against the leftwing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At the time, the U.S. was also deeply involved in civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as the emergence of military strongman Manuel Noriega in Panama.

The Central American nations signed a historic peace accord in Guatemala in 1987, defying pressure from the administration of Ronald Reagan which wanted more concessions from the Sandinistas. It earned Costa Rican president Oscar Arias the Nobel Peace prize.

But peace turned into a new nightmare as the region was engulfed by street gangs, or 'maras'; the product of extreme poverty and state neglect, but also fueled by the deportation of gang members from U.S. jails.

By 2014 Honduras had the world's highest murder rate.

"Uncomfortable ally"

In recent years, Honduran poverty and violence has led to mass migration as tens of thousands of Hondurans sought refuge in the United States, many of them unaccompanied minors.

As a result, the U.S. has worked closely with Hernández to try and restore order providing increased security assistance, especially for police training. In the process Hernández held frequent meetings with John Kelly, then the commander of United States Southern Command and now President Trump’s chief of staff.

Kelly became such a frequent visitor he was quoted in the Honduran media in 2015 as saying that he felt like "a Honduran citizen." ("Me siento como un ciudadano mas, como vengo con frecuencia a este pais.")

Hernández is also known to brag of his special relationship with the United States, especially his friendship with Kelly.

A press release after a March 2017 meeting between Hernández and then Homeland Security chief Kelly, noted that "both leaders emphasized the close relationship between DHS and the Government of Honduras and expressed enthusiasm for their shared partnership going forward."

"Hernández has been a very pliant ally in U.S regional security strategy, so he is seen favorably by the United States," said Meza, the Honduran analyst. "But at the same time, he is an uncomfortable ally."

U.S. officials credit the Honduran government with reducing violence thanks in large part to U.S. funding for police training. In June, Kelly went as far as calling the progress of Honduras and its neighbors, "a miracle."

But analysts are concerned by pervasive drug corruption and its influence over Honduran politics. In September, the son of former president, Porfirio Lobo, was sentenced to 24-years in U.S. prison for conspiring to import cocaine.

On Friday, Yani Rosenthal, a prominent politician from one of the most powerful banking families in the country, was sentenced to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to a U.S. drug money laundering charge. His cousin, Yankel Rosenthal, a former minister of investment in the Hernández government, is also charged in the same case.

Hernández' brother, Honduran legislator and attorney Antonio Hernández, has also been accused in U.S. court documents of taking bribes from a drug trafficker.

Critics point to the manner in which Hernández stacked the Supreme Court in order to pass a reform allowing him to seek re-election, previously banned in Honduras due to its history of power grabbing caudillos.

Most observers say the U.S. would clearly prefer to have Hernández rather than Nasralla, a left-leaning populist businessman with little political experience.

"The problem is that the open support of the U.S. embassy was so clumsy, so obscene," according to Carlos Dada, the award winning director of El Faro, a news website in neighboring El Salvador, who covered the Honduran election.

In an interview for Dada questioned the role of Matamoros at the electoral tribunal, and his ties to Hernández. "Either we are looking at Olympic incompetence by the TSE (Supreme Electoral Tribunal), or fraud," he said.

Fraud allegations

The election turmoil stems from the bizarre vote-counting process which initially had Nasralla leading by 5% with 57% of the ballots counted, before a sudden halt due to an alleged computer malfunction. The count was suspended for a day and a half. When it restarted Hernández was mysteriously ahead.

Observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) refused to sign off on the election, saying it was "marred by irregularities."

One of the four members of the TSE has since accused Matamoros of unilaterally halting the count without consulting the other members. In an interview with El Faro, TSE member Marco Ramiro Lobo, said Matamoros spoke by phone with Hernandez on the night of the election and resisted publishing early results showing Nasralla ahead by 5%.

Matamoras argued that that it was still too early to indicate which way the vote was going, even though 57% of ballots had been counted.

Only after the OAS observers intervened were the results made public. Not long after, the computer system went down. "I have doubts that it was an accident or it was on purpose. That's why we need an investigation," Lobo told El Faro.

Lobo also expressed his doubt that the vote count had any remaining credibility. "It’s going to be difficult .... At this point, any result will be complicated regardless of the explanations we give. Doubts are going to persist," he said.

Matamoros has denied any skullduggery, saying that a memory system overload caused the computer system to be shut down.

Uncertain future

Hopes remain that an election observers from the OAS and the European Union can help negotiate a resolution of the crisis, that could entail new elections, but Honduras lacks the cash for a new vote.

"That's the big question right now. Will the international community resolve this is a way that Hondurans feel was a fair process," said Adriana Beltrán, with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Analysts warn that if the international community accepts Hernández as the winner in a less than transparent fashion, continued instability is almost inevitable as well as another wave of migration north.

Opposition protests are being promoted on social media with the English hashtag #IDontWantToLeaveMyCountry.

Migration remains a major U.S. concern. The number of illegal immigrants detained along the U.S. border with Mexico saw its biggest surge in a year last month, according to the latest official data released Friday.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) data shows 39,006 people were detained while attempting to cross the border in November, an increase of 12 percent from the previous month and more than double the number of arrests in March and April.

The vast majority were from Central America.

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