Soldiers marching in the middle of the road, bullets whizzing through the air, protesters running for cover through thick clouds of tear gas. Unfortunate tourists venturing the streets of Tegucigalpa in December last year might well have wondered whether they’d stumbled onto a military coup, like the one that rocked Honduras in June 2009 when left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by troops and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica.
The source of these latest scenes of chaos was an election gone wrong. On November 26, voters went to the polls in a tense climate, with many convinced that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), dominated by the ruling National Party, would stop at nothing to ensure the victory of the increasingly authoritarian incumbent, President Juan Orlando Hernández.
After a long, unexplained delay, the TSE announced that Salvador Nasralla ― candidate of the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship ― was in the lead by 5 points with 57 percent of votes counted. But then the electronic vote count was delayed for more than thirty hours. Over the following days, additional “technical failures” occurred. When the count resumed, Nasralla’s lead gradually evaporated and by late in the day on November 30, Hernández was ahead by 1.5 percentage points.
Tens of thousands of outraged Hondurans took to the streets. The government responded by declaring a curfew and deploying military and police who assailed protesters with an intense barrage of tear gas and live ammunition. At least thirty demonstrators were killed over the following month.
But on the afternoon of December 9, as an angry crowd roared outside, tranquility and good cheer reigned inside the TSE’s downtown headquarters. Standing next to TSE president David Matamoros, U.S. chargé d’affaires Heide Fulton took the microphone and called on Hondurans to respect the results of the electoral process. With this tacit endorsement, there could be little doubt that the official results would stand, regardless of the enormous irregularities that had taken place. Hernández appeared guaranteed to remain in power for at least another four years, free to continue implementing his agenda of hardcore neoliberalism accompanied by a sweeping militarization of the country.
A History of Interference
It’s hard to say exactly when it was that Hondurans began half-jokingly referring to the U.S. ambassador as “the proconsul.” The term appears to have surged in popularity in the early 1980s, when the U.S. embassy accompanied ― many would say “directed” ― Honduras’s tenuous political transition from military rule to a militarized limited democracy. John Negroponte, the US ambassador during many of those years, had a straightforward mission: establishing Honduras as the launching pad for the Reagan administration’s war on left movements and governments in Central America. This involved, on the one hand, securing a permanent and expanded U.S. military presence in the country, and on the other, ensuring a preeminent U.S. role in Honduras’s internal politics with the goal of maintaining the political status quo.
Following elections in 1982, the Honduran government was nominally in civilian hands. In practice, the National and Liberal Parties ― which have alternated in power for decades ― would often have to defer to the Honduran military and the U.S. embassy on key strategic matters. When the Liberal government of Roberto Suazo Córdova sought a policy of nonintervention with the left-wing Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua, it was reportedly overruled by Negroponte and the U.S.-trained army chief Gustavo Álvarez Martinez. Shortly afterward, Honduras became the main staging ground for military attacks on Nicaragua by the CIA-backed Contra insurgency.
Under Negroponte, U.S. troops expanded their presence at the Soto Cano air base, often referred to as a “U.S. base” by Hondurans. U.S. military assistance to Honduras jumped from $4 million to $77.4 million a year from 1981 to 1985, despite the CIA acknowledging internally that the Honduran military perpetrated “hundreds of human rights abuses … many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” CIA-backed military death squads, like Battalion 3-16, killed or disappeared dozens of left-wing trade unionists, academics, peasant leaders, and students. The U.S. embassy was in close contact with death squad leaders, and declassified documents show that Negroponte actively discouraged any reporting on these horrifying state-sponsored crimes so as not “to create human rights problems for Honduras.”
By the end of the decade, death squad activity receded and the military became less overtly involved in government, but, in many ways, the status quo didn’t budge. The elite-controlled Liberal and National parties remained the only viable political contenders. Unlike in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Left was entirely marginalized. The U.S. military presence in Soto Cano ― which became the U.S.’s most important and strategic base in Central America and the Caribbean ― became an unquestioned fixture.
But in the late 2000s, the political edifice that Negroponte had helped erect began to shudder. Mel Zelaya, a wealthy Liberal landowner elected president in 2006, unexpectedly veered to the left. He railed against the power of the country’s entrenched “oligarchy” and angered business leaders by raising the minimum wage by 60 percent. While previous presidents had been staunchly pro-U.S., Zelaya strengthened relations with U.S. bugbear Hugo Chávez, bringing Honduras into Venezuela’s Petrocaribe regional energy cooperation scheme and into the anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).
Perhaps most significantly, Zelaya began dialogue with Honduran left-wing social movements that opposed the U.S. military presence and called for a constituyente, an elected constituent assembly tasked with producing a new, progressive charter to replace the conservative 1982 constitution, drafted under U.S. tutelage during the final days of military rule.
Zelaya’s decision to hold a nonbinding poll asking Hondurans whether or not the question of the constituyente should be put to a vote in elections later that year served as the flimsy pretext for the coup on June 28, 2009. Alleging, without any evidence, that Zelaya was seeking to change the constitution in order to remain in power indefinitely, the majority of Liberal and National leaders rallied behind the military’s removal of Zelaya from the country.
Though the Obama administration, after some hesitation, joined the rest of the region in condemning the Honduran coup, it actively sought to keep Zelaya from returning to Honduras. Later the State Department announced its support for elections under the coup government without the prior restoration of Zelaya, infuriating other governments in the region and removing any incentive for the coup supporters to allow Zelaya to finish his mandate. Declassified documents reveal that Honduran military officers traveled to Washington to lobby in favor of the coup, and appear to have received support and guidance from U.S. military officials.
The years since the coup have been eerily reminiscent of the 1980s. Honduras has once again become heavily militarized. The military was deployed nationwide following Zelaya’s ouster, and it violently repressed the near-daily protests led by a broad-based movement of resistance to the coup.
The National Party governments that came to power following the elections in late 2009 ― considered illegitimate by much of the region ― and elections rife with irregularities in 2013 institutionalized the military’s role in policing. While president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández pushed through legislation creating a military police of public order (PMOP) and, soon after becoming president of Honduras, created the TIGRES militarized police units, which receive US training and whose members have been publicly implicated in corruption.
The remilitarization of Honduras has accompanied a free-for-all for Honduras’s wealthiest families and for international investors, under the slogan “Honduras is Open for Business.” State security forces have been deployed in areas with “social conflicts” linked to mining, agro-industrial, hydroelectric, and tourism enterprises that displace or negatively impact communities, and which are often illegally carried out without prior consultation of local indigenous groups, as required under Honduran law. As human rights advocates have reported, they often act in tandem with private security agents to terrorize communities into submission through targeted killings and attacks.
Security forces have also been implicated in the murder of dozens of political activists, journalists, lawyers, LGBT movement leaders, and land rights advocates. The most notorious of these killings was the 2016 assassination of Berta Cáceres, a world-renowned social leader who campaigned for the environment and indigenous rights and who had been a leader of the movement of resistance to the coup. Under unusual international pressure, the Honduran government carried out an investigation into Cáceres’s murder that led to the indictment of eight individuals, including three current or former members of the military. A separate, independent investigation, using evidence in the possession of authorities, revealed that a vast criminal structure involving state agents, company executives, and one of Honduras’s most powerful families had planned the killing for months.
Despite the opposition of key Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. government has invested heavily in Honduras’s security forces, increasing funding for the country’s military and police by at least 250 percent between 2010 and 2016. Tens of millions of dollars of additional security assistance has been funneled to Honduras under the umbrella of the Central American Regional Security Initiative ― a U.S.-sponsored security plan for Central America ― though the exact sum is unknown due to the plan’s opacity.
Similar to the 1980s, U.S. officials have consistently failed to denounce human rights abuses perpetrated by Honduran security agents and have instead heaped praise on the Hernández administration as a reliable partner in the war on drugs. General John F. Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump and former head of the U.S. military’s Latin America subsidiary, recently called Hernández a “great guy” and a “good friend.” Never mind that both Hernández’s brother and his minister of security have been implicated in drug trafficking, according to the testimony of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant.
But the militarized and corrupt political edifice behind which the U.S. has thrown its support has remained on shaky ground. A new political party that sprang from the movement of resistance to the coup ― Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) ― has posed a major challenge to the bipartisan status quo. In Honduras’s 2013 elections, LIBRE obtained the second-most seats in Congress despite serious electoral irregularities and a massive campaign of intimidation that included the killing of at least eighteen LIBRE candidates, organizers, and activists.
The National Party governments have also been rocked by allegations of high-level corruption and involvement in drug trafficking, embroiling Hernández’s brother and former president Porfirio Lobo, among others. In 2015, massive protests erupted when it was discovered that funds linked to a major corruption scheme had ended up in Hernández’s 2013 campaign account. The U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States (OAS) jumped into the fray and mediated a political solution that excluded major opposition groups and helped Hernández dodge the fate of Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, who today sits in jail.
The legitimacy of the government was further undermined when the Supreme Court ― a body illegally stacked with National Party cronies ― ruled in 2016 that the constitution’s ban on reelection could be ignored in the name of “human rights.” The irony of this move ― coming seven years after a president was ousted for allegedly considering reelection ― was not lost on Hondurans, who took to the streets in droves.
For the 2017 elections, LIBRE joined two small parties in creating the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship. With the objective of winning over as many moderate voters as possible, the Alliance endorsed the centrist presidential candidacy of popular television and radio host and anti-corruption advocate Salvador Nasralla. LIBRE militants made up the bulk of the campaign’s foot soldiers, and the Alliance’s vice presidential candidate was Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of the ousted president.
Taking A Side
On the day of the elections, the TSE announced that it would be able to deliver preliminary results in the early evening. But 8:00 p.m. and then midnight passed without news from the electoral authority. Finally, some ten hours after polls had closed, the TSE announced that, with 57 percent of the votes counted, Nasralla had a five-point lead. Both Hernández and Nasralla declared victory. A dissident member of the TSE, Marco Ramiro Lobo, later told the press that, shortly after voting centers closed, the organism’s technical staff had informed him and his colleagues that, with 70 percent of votes counted, the voting trend favored Nasralla, and was irreversible. For hours, the head of the TSE, David Matamoros, a former National Party congressman, refused to announce these preliminary results but eventually, under pressure from international observers and Lobo, he did so, though he never mentioned that the trend was irreversible.
Then the vote count ― which appeared electronically on the TSE web page ― came to a halt for some thirty hours. According to Lobo, Matamoros had inexplicably ordered the electronic tallying process to be stopped. When it started up again, at a turtle’s pace, Nasralla’s five-point lead began to slowly erode. Protests sprung up throughout the country and were met with violent state repression.
Ten days later, under pressure from international electoral observers and intensifying street protests, Matamoros agreed to a partial recount of votes, though political party representatives wouldn’t be present. On December 9, with U.S. chargé Heide Fulton at his side, he stated that “what we found in the ballot boxes confirms what we had counted on the day of the election.” Then, on the evening of December 17, Matamoros held an impromptu press conference and announced that “the reelected president for the 2018-2022 period is the citizen Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado.” The elections, he said, had attained a level of transparency “never seen in Honduras.”
To the surprise of many, the OAS electoral observation mission ― which had failed to denounce significant irregularities in the 2013 elections ― refused to endorse the election results. A few hours after Matamoros’s announcement, the mission released a devastating report identifying numerous irregularities at every stage of the electoral process and concluding that there could be no certainty that the official results were accurate. OAS secretary general Luis Almagro, who has generally had warm relations with right-wing governments and been a leading critic of several left governments, had little choice but to support his institution’s electoral observation team, which he has promoted for years. In a press release published that same evening, he stated that “the only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras is a new call for general elections.”
Once the shock of this unexpected news was absorbed, all eyes turned towards Washington. If the OAS — a trusted instrument of U.S. regional hegemony if there ever was one — was prepared to question the results of these elections, then anything seemed possible, perhaps even a reversal of long-standing U.S. policy towards Honduras.
Twenty-four hours went by without any reaction from the U.S. government. Finally, on the evening of December 18, the State Department issued a short statement taking note of the TSE announcement and reminding political parties that, under Honduran law, they have five days to file complaints with the relevant authorities, i.e., the courts controlled by the National Party. No mention was made of the OAS report.
Right-wing Latin American governments began to congratulate Hernández. First Guatemala, then Colombia, and then Mexico, only hours after Reuters reported that the U.S. government had been working behind the scenes to get the Mexican government to formally recognize the elections, according to sources in the country’s foreign ministry. With no apparent hint of irony, a U.S. State Department official told the media that “the Mexican statement would have a strong influence” on the U.S. position towards the Honduran elections. Three days passed, four more protestors were killed by Honduran security forces. Finally, on Friday, December 22 came the U.S. State Department release that surprised no one: “We congratulate President Juan Orlando Hernandez on his victory in the November 26 presidential elections, as declared by the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).”
This piece was published as part of a collaboration with Jacobin.
Alexander Main is senior associate for the International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.