CALI, Colombia—Would you risk your life to defend democracy?
The topic might spark a revealing back-and-forth between the guests at your next dinner party, but—at least for now, at least in North America—the threat of getting killed over incompatible ideals remains abstract.
In the brave new world of post-election Honduras, on the other hand, the possibility of getting shot or bludgeoned to death while showing support for the rule of law is an everyday reality for much of the populace. Dozens have been killed, hundreds more wounded, and at least 1,500 have been imprisoned for resisting a corrupt regime’s bid to retain power by any means necessary.
And the Trump administration is now aiding and abetting that regime’s electoral coup, openly endorsing a “tyrant” and would-be “dictator” by the name of Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been widely criticized for hijacking the presidency of the “U.S.S. Honduras”—so called for its long-standing use as a base for Uncle Sam’s military operations, whether overt or covert.
This marks the second time in less than a decade that a sitting U.S. president has enabled a hostile takeover of the government in the small and impoverished Central American nation best known for its banana and coffee exports. The Obama administration also tacitly permitted a power grab by landed elites and the military that ousted democratically elected president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya in 2009.
That overthrow plunged the country into a long ongoing period of chaos that gave rise to rampant drug smuggling and potent street gangs. Honduras also became the perennial home to one of the highest murder rates in the world. The toxic mix of violence and deprivation has caused hundreds of thousands of migrants, including many undocumented children, to flee the country in hopes of eventually finding a better life in the U.S.
Now, in the wake of the “stolen” elections that saw Hernández violate the Honduran constitution’s one-term limit in order to retain power, human rights conditions for broad swaths of the population have worsened yet again.
“We are in an emergency due to the brutality of the military, police, and paramilitary forces obeying the strategy of government repression,” said Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“The population, which has been robbed of its right to elect and be elected, is [suffering through] the worst conditions of insecurity ever seen in the history of the country,” said Oliva from the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
“It is, in short, a new coup d’état that only the blind refuse to see.”
Trump’s Man in Honduras
On Friday, December 22, the Trump administration became one of the few governments in the free world to recognize Hernández’s “victory” in Honduras. A State Department spokesperson issued a press release that read:
“We congratulate President Juan Orlando Hernández on his victory in the November 26 presidential elections, as declared by the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).”
Notice anything funny about the date of the kudos and that of the actual election? That’s right; it took the State Department almost a full month to offer incumbent leader Hernández their huzzah.
That’s because it took that long for the TSE to tally the vote. And even after four weeks it seems they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get it right.
The TSE’s official vote count has been called into question by myriad international observers, including human rights groups, members of the U.S. Congress, the European Union (EU) and the Organization of American States (OAS), all of whom have expressed concern about widespread fraud in the electoral process back in November.
Hernández’s opponent, a popular TV personality named Salvador Nasralla, also denounced the results, even traveling to Washington to rally support for an electoral do-over, as per the recommendation of the OAS. This marks the first time in that body’s history it has called for the annulment of a national election.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of ordinary Hondurans turned out to protest the discredited electoral process. Security forces have regularly attacked demonstrators, leaving at least 30 people dead at the time of this writing.
Although official congratulation was delayed by all the international outrage, the Trump administration made it clear throughout the Honduran presidential campaign, and even in the post-vote chaos, that Hernández was their man. The State Department even went so far as to sign off on a deal to bolster military aid to the regime by in the first days after the election. That process involved certifying the government as compliant with stringent U.S. regulations against human rights abuses—so it could receive its portion of about $645 million Congress allocated for Central America—even as Honduran troops were assaulting unarmed demonstrators.
“Hernández can be compared to the leader of a crime syndicate that has greatly benefited from the complete breakdown of the rule of law that has taken place in Honduras since the 2009 coup,” said Alex Main, a senior analyst with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
“Hernández's family and many of his National Party colleagues are allegedly implicated in drug trafficking, and the ruling National Party has embezzled vast sums of public funds, some of which were invested in Hernández's last presidential campaign,” Main said.
None of that seems to dissuade members of the Trump administration from backing the tropical strong man.
According to Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras and U.S. history at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), the State Department plans to “aggressively support Hernández no matter how criminal his behavior, how repressive his regime, how clearly he’s locking into his dictatorship.”
But why? Given POTUS’s tough talk about upping the ante in the Drug War, one could be forgiven for thinking that a leader and a party with an established penchant for dabbling in narcotics trafficking might make for unsavory bed-fellows. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case:
“[White House] Chief of Staff John Kelly has an established history of celebrating Hernández while head of the U.S. Southern Command, saying that Hernández was doing a ‘magnificent job’ of fighting drug traffickers,” Frank said, noting that’s “an astonishing thing to say given a substantial body of evidence suggesting Hernández is himself linked to drug trafficking.”
President Hernández’s office declined an invitation to be interviewed for this article.
The U.S. Southern Command’s Soto Cano air base in Honduras remains the largest foreign-soil U.S. military installation in the hemisphere. But the presence of hundreds of American troops and a fleet of aircraft hasn’t prevented Honduras from becoming a crime-ridden, drug-smuggling hotbed.
Hernández, a lawyer and former army officer, has endeared himself to center-right leaders in the U.S.—let’s just go ahead and call them Banana Republicans—precisely because of his hardball claims to curb lawlessness.
“In his election campaigns Hernández has touted his ‘tough on crime’ security agenda, in response to the very real explosion of crime and violence,” said CEPR analyst Main.
The nation’s underworld is now dominated by a particularly brutal species of organized crime groups. Powerful street gangs like the Salvatruchas and Barrio 18 work as intermediaries for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, as well as running their own widespread extortion and prostitution rings.
Large-scale, international mafias have taken full advantage of chaotic conditions. As much as 90 percent of illegal narcotics entering Mexico now pass through Central America, and Honduras is a particularly tempting target for smugglers due to the presence of entrenched gangs and notoriously corrupt officials.
International economists, human rights observers, and policy analysts are quick to point out that the problems of crime and violence facing Honduras and its neighbors are caused directly by sky-high rates of poverty. U.S. conservatives, however, have consistently put the cart before the horse, preferring to beef up the police and military instead of tackling the lack of employment or education.
“Without security, it is impossible to have ... economic development,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a conference of Central American leaders last June. Tillerson seems unable to envision the flip side of the coin: that without development and improved quality of life for the masses there can be no security.
Nevertheless, in keeping with their stick-before-the-carrot ethos, the Banana Republicans have empowered Hernández and his predecessors to suppress the gangs at all costs in an environment where the Central American maras have been cast as Trump’s perfect villains. The U.S. has sent down hundreds of millions of dollars in controversially unsupervised military aid since 2009. But, as often happens in the Drug War, the crime-fighting crackdown in Honduras has led to widespread abuses against ordinary citizens. And critics say that’s no accident.
“Concretely, [Hernández’s] agenda has involved an intense militarization of the country,” Main said, often in order to further private interests. State security forces have been deployed to repress “social conflicts” that have cropped up due to “extractivist, hydroelectric, agro-industrial and tourist megaprojects that displace or negatively impact communities, many of them indigenous.”
Historically, that kind of exploitation has been the norm in Honduras and many other nations in Central and South America. Starting in the late 19th century, large corporations like Dole and the United Fruit Company began partnering with local leaders and landed elites to ensure cheap exports of fruits and vegetables.
While many other countries in the region revolted against this kind of quasi-corporate rule, the U.S.S. Honduras never did. Economically and militarily it has continued to serve as a launch pad for U.S.-backed initiatives, such as the Contra War in the 1980s, the current Drug War, and, most recently, charter cities meant to serve transnational businesses. As we know, Trump appreciates loyal clients, and lest anyone doubt that, Honduras is one of only two countries so far (the other being Guatemala) that have announced they’d follow the U.S. lead moving their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.
When community and indigenous leaders attempt to stand up for their own interests, they are often targeted by state or private security forces. That was the case in the murder of Berta Cáceres, a prominent environmentalist who was gunned down by assassins with ties to the Honduran army in March of 2016.
COFADEH’s Oliva describes Hernández as committed to supporting corporate agendas in Honduras “even if it means a fraudulent breach of Honduran law.”
The Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which was in charge of the vote count, is run by members of Hernández’s own National Party—which just happened to have been caught red-handed plotting to rig ballot boxes in his favor during the most recent election.
But the plan to tamper with polsters’ original tally sheets proved insufficient to garner a Hernández win. With more than half the votes counted on Nov. 26 the results showed Nasralla—whose opposition party is aptly called the Coalition Against the Dictatorship in reference to Hernández himself—with what one TSE magistrate referred to in a rare moment of probity as an “irreversible” lead. At which point the TSE simply stopped releasing vote-count information to the public.
When the tally was allowed to continue, a few days later, Nasralla had mysteriously fallen behind his opponent.
“The first results announced by the TSE, putting Nasralla five points ahead, were based on 56 percent of total votes cast,” said Main, of CEPR. “The only way that a lead this strong could be reversed, would be if the remaining votes overwhelmingly favored Hernández, which statistically would be a highly improbable occurrence given that the votes counted ahead of the first announcement were drawn from every part of the country.”
And the balloting anomalies didn’t stop there. Electoral observers from the OAS and EU also cried foul on several other counts.
“The irregularities included numerous credible reports of the buying of votes and observer credentials ahead of the elections,” Main said, “and serious security breaches compromising many of the vote tally sheets that were physically transported to the TSE in the latter phase of the vote count.”
Those security breaches were no accident. Physically altering the ballots to fix the vote had been a cornerstone of the National Party’s plot all along, as the Economist reported the week of the election.
Déja Coup All Over Again
Perhaps the most ironic—and politically cynical—election storyline concerns the fact that it was Hernández’s own National Party which helped launch the military coup against then-President Zelaya nine years ago, precisely because he stood accused (by them) of seeking a second term in office.
Zelaya, a center-left leader, had enraged local elites by suggesting progressive social programs like free school lunches for poor children, and a modest hike to the minimum wage. He’d also spoken critically about U.S. and corporate influence.
His downfall came when he proposed a non-binding referendum, or plebiscite, that would have permitted a Constitutional assembly to address issues such as progressive taxation, enhanced voter-right laws, and protection of natural resources. The same morning that vote was to take place “Mel” found himself frog-marched out of his home, still dressed in his pajamas, by armed troops.
Although that year’s presidential campaign was well underway, and Zelaya was not in the running nor eligible to be so, his opponents accused him of organizing the plebiscite to extend his time in office.
Since he’d already run afoul of U.S. leaders, the charge of seeking a second term made a convenient excuse for Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to look the other way when Zelaya was kidnapped by soldiers and whisked out of the country.
“With zero evidence, the Honduran elites launched the entirely fictive charge that President Manuel Zelaya was using the call for a constitutional convention to try to obtain a second term, in order to justify their 2009 military coup,” said UCSC’s Frank, who is the author of Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America.
Conversely, Hernández’s flouting of the national charter to remain in office has not drawn a peep of protest from the Trump State Department, because, of course, he’s an “allly.”
“Hernández, by contrast, launched his very real campaign for reelection, in complete violation of the Honduran constitution, which very explicitly not only bans a second term but makes it a criminal act for a sitting president to even advocate reelection,” Frank said.
When it became clear that—in spite of all the evidence pointing to a bogus ballot count—the Trump administration was going to throw its weight behind Hernández, the anti-dictator candidate, Nasralla, warned reporters that the electoral crisis could push the country toward “civil war.”
Security analyst Main said that’s not just empty rhetoric:
“The possibility of a civil war is real given the level of outrage over the blatant electoral shenanigans that have taken place,” he said. Some state security forces have already made overtures toward throwing in their lot with the protestors, even disobeying orders to attack demonstrations. Such divisions could be the first indication of broader schism within the armed forces, Main said.
“Today it is clear that a majority of Hondurans do not trust the results of the elections and this [could] create acute social instability going forward.”
The broad coalition pushing for democracy in Honduras—including academics, environmentalists, the LGBT community, indigenous groups, and Afro-Hondurans—isn’t likely to back down anytime soon.
“They know that if they do not continue to protest, they and their children will die, whether at the point of a gun, from poverty, from lack of health care, or while trying to flee to another country,” Frank said.
“If Hernández stays in power, it’s clear that his [regime] will escalate a terrifying wave of killings, intimidation, media repression, and harassment ... to wipe out the social movements and their leadership altogether.”
In its official letter of congratulations to Hernández, the State Department did offer a tepid response to the complaints of Nasralla supporters who just saw their country stolen away from them (again):
“The close election results, irregularities identified by the OAS and the EU election observation missions, and strong reactions from Hondurans across the political spectrum underscore the need for a robust national dialogue,” it said.
For Frank, however, the tone smacks of a dangerous false equivalency.
“We need to beware of calls for ‘negotiation’ and ‘dialogue’ between Hernández and Nasralla,” she added. “One side controls the military, the police, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Congress, the executive branch, and the electoral commission. The other does not. It’s like asking the chickens to negotiate with the foxes over who controls the chicken coop.”
Bertha Oliva has seen the COFADEH offices teargassed and shot up by the local goon squads often enough to know that Frank’s concerns about further repression are not mere hyperbole.
She said the vote last November was a “mandate” by the Honduran people against a long series of rulers, Hernández included, who have put the country “at the mercy of local and international organized crime and looted the resources of Honduras for their own benefit.”
“The people voted to expel these leaders, but elites are reluctant to obey. That’s already led to a popular insurrection,” Oliva said, “and this is only the beginning.”