The Trump administration on Friday recognized the ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández as the winner of the hotly contested Nov 26 presidential election despite serious allegations of fraud.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert congratulated Hernández in a statement that was posted on the website of the U.S. embassy in Honduras.
She recognized that "irregularities" identified by observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS), adding that they "underscore the need for a robust national dialogue," and "much-needed electoral reforms."
The statement also called upon Hernández to "ensure Honduran security services respect the rights of peaceful protestors."
When the result of the election was delayed three weeks due to reports of electronic fraud in the vote counting process, supporters of opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla took to the streets and highways around the country this week with burning tires and rocks. At least 17 people have died in violent street clashes since the Nov. 26 vote.
The U.S. decision to recognize Hernández could rally regional support for the Honduran leader after most Latin American governments hesitated to recognize Hernández after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared him the winner on Sunday by 1.5%. So far only Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala have backed the official result which gave Hernández victory by slightly more than 50,000 votes, (42.95% to 41.42%).
By recognizing President Hernández in spite of the irregularities, "the Trump administration has sent a dangerous signal to Latin America at a time when Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela are all preparing to hold presidential elections in 2018," according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“By averting its eyes from what happened in Honduras, the Trump administration is signaling to the region that it is willing to overlook threats to the democratic process when dealing with an ally,” said Adriana Beltrán, director of the WOLA Citizen Security program. "This was an opportunity for the United States to send a strong message that deeply flawed elections and the repression of peaceful protests are not acceptable. Instead, Washington has chosen to ignore human rights and democracy.”
In its assessment of the election published late Sunday, the OAS observer mission cast doubt on its legitimacy and recommended new elections due to what it said was suspicious evidence of fraud. The OAS said the "electoral process was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity," that made it impossible to determine the outcome with enough certainty.
It said irregularities included “deliberate human intrusions into the computer system, intentional elimination of digital traces,” opened ballot boxes and “extreme statistical improbability." In calling for new elections, the OAS warned "respecting democratic values and citizens is the necessary road to safeguard society from death and violence."
The Honduran government has rejected calls to repeat the election, and has denounced OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro for political bias.
Electoral tribunal president David Matamoros described the Nov 26 vote as “the most transparent electoral process ever seen in Honduras.”
The OAS call for new elections was backed this week by numerous U.S. members of Congress as well as human rights activists and Latin America policy watchdog groups.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “The Honduran people deserve an electoral process that is credible and transparent, and I trust the Organization of American States’ (OAS) assessment that this process has failed to meet that standard.”
U.S. officials say that despite computer problems during the vote count the OAS observers failed to prove that there was fraud. "The issue is about the process and not the candidate or the outcome," a senior State Department official told reporters in a briefing on Wednesday
The vote-count initially had Nasralla leading by 5% with 60% of the ballots tabulated, before a sudden halt due to an alleged computer server malfunction. The count was suspended for several hours before Hernández mysteriously took the lead.
The State Department said it believed the electoral tribunal has sought to count the result "in as transparent a way as possible after having clearly had a problem with their servers that raised doubts about what was going on."
US regional ally
Hernández is a key U.S. ally in the region on strategic issues such as security and immigration. The United States has maintained a low profile during the election crisis, besides appealing for electoral transparency and calm on the streets.
Critics warn that Hernández' quest for re-election leaves him with too much power in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and with weak institutions.
They 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.
Nasralla was in Washington Monday meeting with the OAS and the U.S. State Department. He initially refused to accept the results and called for peaceful protests, warning that the country was on the verge of civil war. "It's clear there was fraud," he said in a short Facebook video posted on Sunday, calling Hernández an "imposter."
But after the U.S. recognized Hernández, Nasralla appeared to throw in the towel on Friday. "With this decision by the U.S. I am out of the picture," he said in an interview with HCH radio. "I think they are very afraid of leftwing governments. I did not want a leftist government. Those who govern Honduras are criminals who depend on the United States."
"I felt it was clear we won the elections, but because of political decisions they did not allow us to have a clean government, in Honduras things can't be done clean," he said.
Hernandez, a 49-year-old lawyer and former legislator, took office in January 2014 and is credited with reducing gang violence in the impoverished Central American country. That has earned his praise from U.S. officials for reducing migration of Hondurans fleeing to the United States to escape violence.
But his government has been tainted by corruption and drug trafficking allegations. He is also accused of plotting an illegal power grab by engineering a change in the constitution to allow re-election, long outlawed in Honduras.
Nasralla is a populist businessman and former Pepsi CEO in Honduras as well as being the country's best-known sportscaster. Married to a former beauty queen, he has never been elected to political office before.
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 won praise from John Kelly, then the commander of United States Southern Command and now President Trump’s chief of staff.
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 - a large number from Honduras - 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.
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.
Last week, 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.