Legitimizing the Illegitimate: The Honduran Show Elections and the Challenge Ahead

March 8, 2010

Hondurans were urged to go to the polls November 29 to exercise their democratic rights. “The presidential elections,” declared the country’s de facto leader Roberto Micheletti, who came to power June 28 through a military coup, “will represent the strengthening of our democracy and of the civil liberties that our people demand and deserve.”1 The election winner, Porfirio Lobo of the right-wing Nationalist Party, captured 56% of the vote, and the Honduran Electoral Council triumphantly announced on election night that a majority of eligible voters, 61%, had participated, representing a defeat for ousted president Manuel Zelaya and the anti-coup resistance movement, which had called for a boycott.2 U.S. officials hailed the election as an important first step in ending the political instability that has plagued Honduras since the coup.

“By voting in the November 29 presidential election in Honduras,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a press release, “the Honduran people expressed their commitment to a democratic future for their country.” She added: “They turned out in large numbers, and they threw out, in effect, the party of both President Zelaya and the de facto leader, Mr. Micheletti.”3

A week after the election, however, CNN.com reported that the Honduran government’s turnout figure had been overstated by more than 4%. Voter participation, in fact, “was not massive,” reporter Mariano Castillo noted, giving “some credence to Zelaya’s claims that people heeded his calls for a boycott.” Giving those claims greater credence, CNN later revised the figure to 50%, marking a 5% decline in voter participation since the last Honduran election in 2005 (despite the government’s last-minute decision to keep the polls open for an additional hour).4 About 7% of the ballots were ultimately reported blank or spoiled, and some of them indisputably protested the de facto government, with anti-coup sentiments written across the names of candidates.5

The three-month campaign season leading up to the election was punctuated by incidents of police and military brutality committed against the coup government’s opponents.6 The de facto government suspended rights of assembly and free speech, imposed curfews, and constantly harassed the few media outlets reporting on the Honduran state’s repression and the popular resistance to it.7 A month before the election, town mayors across the country received letters from the Armed Forces requesting “leaders, names and telephone [numbers] of those who make up the resistance and that bring restiveness to the projects of your community.”8 The day before the election, the Honduran military raided the offices of the Red Comal (Comal Network), a campesino development organization that has opposed the coup, claiming to have a warrant to search for and confiscate guns or “articles which would threaten people.” The organization’s computers, documents, and cash were seized.9

On November 13, the Micheletti government called up of more than 5,000 military reservists to augment the 12,000 police and 11,000 soldiers assigned to monitor polling places on election day. Almost certainly, the relative calm that prevailed on election day was a result of the resistance movement’s calls for people to stay home and not to rally publicly. In San Pedro Sula, however, anti-riot police attacked a march of about 500 peaceful anti-election protesters with tear gas and water cannons.10 Meanwhile, the election was conducted without the presence of certified international observers that would be necessary to accept the results even in normal times, let alone with the election conducted under a government exercising fierce repression of the media and of free speech.

Demonstration elections—that is, elections held for little other purpose than to buff the image of an anti-democratic government, often one that comes to power by force—typically involve coercion. The November election in Honduras was no exception. For this reason, the National Front Against the Coup d’État in Honduras, the umbrella organization that has led the anti-coup movement, persistently called for a boycott of the compulsory vote, despite threats that even suggesting such a move would be punished with imprisonment.11 Protesting the election, Carlos H. Reyes, a trade unionist and coordinator of the resistance coalition, bowed out of the race in November, together with dozens of progressive anti-coup candidates at all levels. Reyes had been the sole candidate independent of the corrupt two-party system that dominates Honduran politics.

As protesters continued to denounce the election, Lobo took power January 27, even as Micheletti, the most public figurehead of the coup, remained a celebrated and undeniable political presence. Micheletti had defiantly refused to establish a “unity government” with Zelaya and to step down from his usurped office after the election, as required by the accords he had agreed to.12 Two week before Lobo’s inauguration, Micheletti was declared member of Congress for life, an unprecedented appointment.13 Since taking office Lobo has pushed hard for the Honduran Congress to approve a decree granting amnesty to the six military commanders who helped organize and execute the coup. He has also put forth a neoliberal development project, called the Nation Plan, which will aim to eliminate seven state agencies and supposedly eliminate extreme poverty by 2038.14

The Lobo administration, despite its best efforts to publicly disavow the coup, is obviously pursuing an agenda wholly beneficial to Micheletti and the golpistas (putschists): granting impunity to the coup’s perpetrators and maintaining, even strengthening, the neoliberal status quo. The November election, then, is best understood not as an exercise in citizen participation, and still less as a step in the direction of “good governance.” Rather, the election represented an attempt to bury the coup, paint a picture of the Micheletti government as benevolent and committed to democracy, and earn Honduras back its sorely missed international legitimacy.

With the U.S.-supported coup government no longer officially in power, and the golpistas remaining on the national political scene, one thing has been established: Future Honduran presidents cannot count on fulfilling their terms if they choose to act for the people and against the country’s most powerful interests. Moreover, the election served to solidify the U.S. position on Honduras that it had maintained from the beginning: to treat the golpistas as legitimate political actors to be negotiated with as equals, and not as criminal suspects.

But not all will be easy for Lobo, who began his term in a position of serious weakness. Instead of receiving power from his legally elected predecessor, he stepped in as the successor to a government that went unrecognized by every country on the planet. Although Lobo was assured recognition by the United States and its allies, he will face the challenge of negotiating the terms of renewed relations with most Latin American states. As of this writing, seven countries in the hemisphere (Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, and Peru) have recognized or indicated they will recognize the Lobo government; nine have not. And Honduras remains suspended from the Organization of American States. Furthermore, the coup led to an enormous economic drain on the state’s coffers, which the Micheletti government dealt with in large part by spending the country’s reserves without concern for the conditions that would be inherited by the new administration to be inaugurated in January. Immediately after Lobo’s inauguration, his government declared itself bankrupt, with only $50 million left in reserves.15

In the end, the events of the coup, the Micheletti government’s seven-month rule, and the whitewashing of the November election’s serious deficiencies have revealed the dense connections forged between different sectors of the Honduran elite during the last two decades. Despite the relative success of the traditional political parties and the elites whom they serve, their violent excesses have done away with the opacity they once enjoyed. There is no pulling back the curtain.


The Honduran elite today comprises a small network of about 10 families that together control most of the economy.16 Their interests in print and broadcast media, fast food, construction, and many other economic sectors unite the traditional social and political elites of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the country’s two largest cities, with what was formerly a somewhat separate business class descended from Palestinian immigrants, concentrated primarily on the country’s north coast. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, this network of wealthy families saw their position improve as they benefited from the difference between the low cost of Honduran labor and the higher prices of Honduran goods internationally.

San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, once void of international chain restaurants, now seem to boast every one that exists. Large SUVs and luxury cars used to be prohibitively expensive to import, but now they dominate the two largest Honduran cities’ streets and the northern highway that connects them. Few of those who live outside the San Pedro Sula–Tegucigalpa nexus, in the rural hinterland or the smaller towns, enjoy such opportunities to consume the latest computers, smart phones, and televisions. The growing prosperity of a small urban class in the last two decades has increased the gap between rich and poor and increased inequality in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

On economic policies, both major parties are effectively pro-business; making the “choice” between Liberal and National candidates is almost always a matter of one’s family’s history of party loyalty. These sectors once supported Zelaya, the former centrist Liberal Party candidate who defeated Lobo in 2005, espousing his party’s comfortable economic liberalism and commitment to equality under the law and equal opportunities for all. He took power in 2006 with a mandate to confront a weak economy and a government suffering from systematic corruption at all levels. Contrary to his image in the mainstream U.S. media, Zelaya began not as a leftist but as a traditional law-and-order, pro-business president oriented toward continued association with the United States.

The most widely cited indication of Zelaya’s supposed “drift to the left” was his move in December 2007 to join the regional oil alliance known as Petrocaribe, through which Venezuela sells oil to member states on favorable terms. Ironically, joining Petrocaribe was strongly advocated by the very people who today are among Zelaya’s most fervent foes, such as Human Rights Ombudsman Ramón Custodio.17 Zelaya was actually criticized for being too slow to negotiate the stable, lower-cost oil supply that would fuel remarkable economic growth over the next two years.18

The terms of the Petrocaribe agreement were generous, allowing Honduras to finance most of the price over the long term at low interest. Petrocaribe also made loans back to the country that provided capital for a number of stymied government initiatives. Part of the struggle between Zelaya and his opponents in Congress was over the control of financial resources for specific programs, dramatically marked by the Zelaya administration’s refusal in fall 2008 to submit a 2009 budget to Congress. One of the early actions Congress took under the de facto regime was to pass a budget with priorities dictated by the vested interests that Zelaya had made uncomfortable: decreasing funding for public-participation activities, streamlining the application process for environmental clearances, and incorporating a series of contracts for major construction projects.

The Zelaya administration took other steps that tended to protect working-class or poor Hondurans, including negotiating lower interest rates on home loans, which contributed to a construction boom.19 The Zelaya administration’s economic policy even drew high marks from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, not known for a leftist orientation.20 It succeeded in temporarily stopping the Honduran lempira’s decline in value, which had continued since the currency was allowed to float in 1992. The final, most dramatic economic step taken by the Zelaya administration was raising the monthly minimum wage by 84%, from $157 to $289, effective in January 2009.21

The new minimum wage was still insufficient to allow a family to buy the basic subsistence goods considered necessary by government agencies. And not all laborers were covered by the new minimum; maquiladoras in free-enterprise zones were covered by different rules. But the prospect of such raises was enough to alarm the economic elites of the country, already feeling threatened by unanticipated political and social steps being taken by the formerly mainstream president (for example, his disavowal of the war on drugs and endorsement of decriminalization).22

But it was the Zelaya administration’s steps to increase public participation in government activities, culminating in the ill-fated public opinion survey called the cuarta urna, that provided the coup’s ultimate pretext.23 Zelaya’s simple proposal to ask the people whether they would support placing a question on the November ballot to test support for a constitutional convention was so threatening to the power elite that they could not wait the seven months remaining in Zelaya’s term and moved to have him deposed immediately. The timing of the coup, which happened the very day Zelaya’s survey was to take place, sent a clear message that efforts to secure popular consultations in Honduras risk a military reaction.

Ironically, it was precisely to counter public disillusionment with elected government—so evident in Lobo’s election, with its mediocre voter participation and significant number of protest votes—that Zelaya called for a popular consultation on the question of establishing a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in a way that would stimulate greater popular participation in governance. Indeed, the decline in voter turnout evident in the November election continued a long-established downward trend. The decline mirrors the data collected by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project showing that Hondurans are, of all the countries tracked in Latin America, the most discouraged about democracy and government in general.24

But as anyone who has read the mainstream U.S. media knows, the real reason the coup took place was that Zelaya, a leftist, was violating the Honduran constitution by attempting to pass a referendum that would have abolished term limits à la Chávez, allowing him to stay in office beyond the end of his four year term. Of course, everything about that characterization is wrong, but it was sufficient to provide cover to the golpistas; meanwhile, from the very first, the U.S. response to the coup was more muted than elsewhere. While both Obama and Clinton stated relatively quickly that the United States continued to recognize the legitimacy of Zelaya’s administration, State Department statements aimed at an evenhanded approach that treated the de facto government as equivalent to the constitutional executive government. There was a general consensus in mainstream English-language media that Zelaya’s “move left” had made the United States uncomfortable—calling attention to continuity of foreign policy from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, despite the Obama’s commitment to multilateralism in foreign affairs.

Once the OAS and UN had voted to condemn the Honduran coup, the United States initiated a consistent advocacy for a negotiated settlement between the Zelaya government—which the United States continued to insist was the only government it recognized even after the November elections—and the de facto regime, which the United States equally emphatically refused to recognize and repeatedly described as illegitimate. Yet by treating the de facto regime as equivalent to the Zelaya government, U.S.-backed policy lent the Micheletti government extraordinary support. News reports in the first two months after the coup in Honduras made it clear that U.S. inaction was perceived as tacit approval of the coup.25

Initially, the United States tried to stay in the background, leaving its favored negotiator, Costa Rican president Óscar Arias, to undertake the visible negotiations for the San José Accord, hammered out in July.26 The accord treated the de facto government’s assertions as facts, going to elaborate lengths to promise that Zelaya would not seize power permanently if allowed to return to complete his term in office. As would be the case throughout the coming months, the announced San José Accord turned out to be acceptable to no one. No one, that is, except Arias and his sponsor, the State Department.

In response to the failure of the San José Accord, the United States finally ramped up economic and personal pressure on the coup government in late summer, canceling visas and suspending non-military aid. Sending mixed messages, the United States left in place military aid and resisted making a determination that there had been a military coup. Rather than accede to these limited pressures, the de facto government and its civilian partners adopted a policy of holding on until the election. Having elevated the status of the de facto government by bargaining with it (unsuccessfully), the United States in late summer took the position that the November election—with candidates selected before the coup—would produce a new government untainted by the actions of either side in the constitutional conflict. A vigorous campaign season could still happen, fully in keeping with Honduran law, which limits political campaigning to the months of September, October, and November.

Then, without warning, Zelaya reappeared in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. The de facto government’s response was immediate and exaggerated. In addition to initiating a brutal and possibly illegal set of actions against the Brazilian embassy itself, the regime forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrators assembling outside. It imposed a complete curfew, the most absolute and extensive of several state of siege actions declared since the coup. Actions against the opposition media, especially radio stations that provided one of the widest outlets for the mass of people in the country, stepped up and took new forms. The greater visibility of this repression, witnessed by international media drawn to Honduras by the drama of Zelaya’s return, led to renewed efforts at reviving the San José Accord and reaching a resolution that would, the theme now went, ensure that elections would be free, fair, and transparent.

New negotiations between representatives of Micheletti and Zelaya took place in Tegucigalpa, and were billed as returning to the San José framework.27 They retained much that was problematic in the original agreement while making it somewhat worse. Zelaya, under great pressure to not appear intransigent, agreed to let the Honduran Congress decide the question of his return to office. In return, a new “unity government” was to be formed, with members nominated by both the Zelaya administration and the de facto government.

But there was a catch: The timeline incorporated in the Tegucigalpa–San José Accord, starting with delivery of the accord to the Honduran Congress on October 30, left only a week for the new unity government to be formed by November 5—barely three and a half weeks before the scheduled election. The new agreement seemed to imply that the Honduran Congress would be required to act before the unity government was formed. But in fact, no one speaking for the Congress was involved in the agreement. Micheletti had dismissed the Congress before October 30, and José Saavedra, president of the Congress, refused to cut short the long weekend that followed. Once Saavedra received the accord on November 3, he avoided convening Congress to consider it, using the previously successful dodge of asking for reports from other government offices to delay until after the November 29 balloting. The failure to provide a clear deadline for congressional action, yet making its completion a requirement for forming the unity government, provided the opening for a final sequence of bad-faith actions by the de facto government.

But in the end, it was the United States, knowingly or not, that pulled the trigger on the Zelaya administration. A State Department representative, speaking in Spanish, was interviewed in Honduras saying that no matter what the Honduran Congress decided, the United States would recognize the upcoming November election. The only pressure that existed on the de facto authorities suddenly evaporated. It was now clear that the powerful elites behind the coup would get what they wanted: election results legitimated by the international community (meaning the United States and its allies). In widely reported remarks Lew Amselem, the U.S. representative to the OAS, reinforced the U.S. position on the election, disparaging the positions of major South American powers that refused to recognize the elections as “magical realism.” Elections, the United States claimed, would solve everything. Elections equal democracy.

And so was born the U.S. attachment to the November election. The Honduran people needed simply to move on, the thinking went, ignoring the disruption brought about by the coup. Except it isn’t that simple. The plan to hold a public opinion survey on June 28 did come about merely because one person, Zelaya, insisted on carrying it out in defiance of the other branches of government. A lot more than a nonbinding poll was and remains at stake, and the coup has unleashed forces that no one is in a position to contain.


From the perspective of progressives in Honduras, Lobo’s election and U.S. policy in support of him have merely delayed, not killed, the campaign for constitutional reform. Yet the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) today faces considerable challenges in that quest. From a purely political perspective, the FNRP’s decision to call for an electoral boycott may not have been the most effective way to make its voice heard. By calling for the withdrawal of candidates, the Frente missed the opportunity to see a real protest vote coalescence around independent candidate Reyes, and around the progressives in the congressional and local races. Yet, as communiqués from the Frente make clear, they understood what they were doing.28

From the early days of protest to a well-coordinated, yet loose network that forced the de facto government into open displays of repression, the FNRP has developed dramatically and, remarkably, managed to maintain a diverse and complex structure without anointing a singular leader. In the context of a Honduran history of absolute political co-optation and high levels of corruption, and faced with a system rigged to close out effective political representation, the FNRP maintained political independence and an unmatched degree of moral authority. Even at the cost of withdrawing from the Tegucigalpa Accord negotiations when they seemed destined to result in a unity government, the Frente maintained its focus, which was not on restoring Zelaya for himself, but as a sign that the will of the electorate could not be set aside without consequences.

The Frente now has stronger evidence of the need for a constitutional reform, because there was no solution that could reinstate the popularly elected president. The question is, can they force other political actors to pursue constitutional reform, and if they can, will they be in a position to participate in negotiations? Should they remain an independent movement, or form a political party under current electoral law, perhaps uniting progressives who have disclaimed the actions of the parties that participated in the coup? The answers to these questions may well determine whether the coup d’état of 2009 becomes either the beginning of a process in Honduras leading to real governmental reform or the model for rolling back more progressive governments in Latin America.

Rosemary A. Joyce teaches anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley. The author of several books on Mesoamerican archaeology and gender, she has conducted research in Honduras since 1977.

1. “Micheletti ofrece ausentarse por una semana,” El Heraldo (Tegucigalpa), November 19, 2009.

2. “La autoridad electoral declara a Porfirio Lobo presidente electo de Honduras,” EcoDiario (Spain), December 12, 2009.

3. Stephen Kauffman, “Clinton Says Election Showed Honduran Commitment to Democracy,” America.gov, December 11, 2009.

4. Mariano Castillo, “Majority of Eligible Hondurans Voted in Election,” CNN.com, December 6, 2009; Mariano Castillo, “Honduran Election Turnout Lower Than First Estimated,” CNN.com, December 22, 2009. On December 19, 2009, with 100% of the votes reported counted by the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the actual turnout was calculated to be 49.94% of the reported registered voters cited by the TSE “Hondureños a reflexionar el voto,” La Tribuna, November 24, 2009; see Russell N. Sheptak, “100.07% and Still Counting,” December 19, 2009, available at hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com.

5. “Votos nulos y blancos son tercera fuerza,” La Tribuna, December 13, 2009.

6. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, during on a August 17–21 visit, received more than 300 complaints of illegal detention and assaults and stated there were thousands of human rights violations as a consequence of government actions after the coup; see Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR), Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d’Etat (Organization of American States, Ser.L/V/II/Document 55, December 30, 2009). See also Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) reports a total of 40 well-documented, politically motivated deaths in Register of Politically Motivated Violent Deaths of Individuals June 2009 to January 2010.

7. For example, César Omar Silva R., “Honduras Reprimida,” Defensoresenlinea.com, January 1, 2010; Dina Meza, “Graves amenazas contra periodista Rony Martínez de Radio Globo,” Defensoresenlinea.com, December 27, 2009; Marvin Palacios, “Canal 36 nuevamente víctima de la dictadura,” Defensoresenlinea.com, November 20, 2009; Dina Meza, “Radio Globo nuevamente al aire, pero con mordaza,” Defensoresenlinea.com, October 19, 2009; IAHCR, Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d’Etat.

8. Original documents posted October 29, 2009, at quotha.net/node/512. Translation by the author.

9. “ ‘I Don’t Know How They Are Going to Legitimate These Elections . . . ’—Bertha Oliva,” The Quixote Center, November 29, 2009.

10. “Peaceful March in San Pedro Sula Brutally Repressed With Water Cannons and Tear Gas,” The Quixote Center, November 29, 2009.

11. “Fiscalía acusará a quienes intenten boicotear las elecciones,” Tiempo (Tegucigalpa), November 18, 2009; “De 4 a 6 años de prisión a quien infrinja Ley Electoral,” Tiempo, November 11, 2009.

12. “Congreso ratifica la separación de Manuel Zelaya,” La Prensa (Tegucigalpa), December 4, 2009.

13. “Declaran a Micheletti diputado vitalicio,” La Tribuna, January 14, 2010.

14. “Porfirio Lobo, Nuevo Presidente de Honduras,” Semana (Bogotá), January 27, 2010; “Pepe Lobo socializa el Plan de Nación,” La Prensa, February 6, 2010.

15. “Honduras: New Government Finds Nation ‘Bankrupt,’ ” The Washington Post, January 28, 2010.

16. Leticia Salomón, “Honduras. Políticos, empresarios y militares: Protagonistas de un golpe anunciado,” 2009, available at juliaardon.com; “Conozca las diez familias que financiaron el golpe de Estado en Honduras!” August 8, 2009, available at ellibertador.hn.

17. “Honduras Urged to Speed Petrocaribe Pact,” Inside Costa Rica, January 30, 2008; “Se debe acelerar negociaciones con Petrocaribe: Custodio,” HonduDiario, January 29, 2008.

18. Miguel Cáceres Rivera, “Carta a un amigo hondureño que está lejos, elmercuriodigital.es (Spain), July 4, 2009.

19. Ibid.

20. Bill Conroy, “Honduran President Zelaya Earns High Marks for Governance, U.S. Agency Scorecard Shows,” November 21, 2009, available at narcosphere.narconews.com; original data available at mcc.gov/mcc/bm.doc/scorefy10-honduras.pdf.

21. Thelma Mejía, “Economy—Honduras: Stormy Outlook for 2009,” Inter Press Service, January 6, 2009.

22. “Latin America: Honduran President Joins Drug Legalization Chorus,” Drug War Chronicle, January 10, 2008.

23. Rosemary A. Joyce, “What Advocates Hoped to Change in the Honduran Constitution,” January 7, 2009, available at hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com.

24. Mitchell A. Seligson and John A. Booth, “¿Prediciendo golpes de estado? Vulnerabilidades democráticas, el Barómetro de las Américas y la crisis hondureña de 2009,” the Americas Barometer, the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), laposurveys.org.

25. “Los seguidores de Zelaya acusan a EE. UU. de apoyar a Micheletti,” ABC.es (Spain), July 20, 2009; “Inadecuado que Zelaya entre sin acuerdo: EE UU,” El Heraldo, July 27, 2009; “Comísion hondureña valora el apoyo de EE. UU,” La Tribuna, July 8, 2009.

26. Spanish text available for download at elheraldo.hn; English translation available at hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com/2009/07/san-jose-accord-translation-and.html.

27. Spanish original available for download at www.elheraldo.hn; English translation available at hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com.

28. For the complete series of communiqués from the FNRP, see contraelgolpedeestadohn.blogspot.com.


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