Kendra McSweeney is a professor of geography at the Ohio State University. Sarah Chayes is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The news out of Honduras has taken dizzying turns since the Nov. 26 presidential election — some predictably sickening, but some so exceptional as to startle even veteran analysts of this Central American country. A partial recount of disputed ballots now puts the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernandez, ahead by a whisker – after inexplicable halts and delays in the counting.
That Hernandez should seek to doctor the numbers is no surprise. What is remarkable — and what deserves the support of democracies everywhere — is the civic patriotism of everyday Hondurans, who braved the odds to vote massively against a power grab Hernandez has been engineering for years.
Hernandez’s tenure has been marred by egregious corruption, the hijacking of government institutions and brazen assassinations of environmental activists, who have exposed the systemic character of that corruption. Despite this track record, Washington — the Obama and Trump administrations alike — has bolstered Hernandez, applauding him as a trusted ally. He has proved deft at securing material and moral support in exchange for a degree of cooperation on two U.S. obsessions: narcotics trafficking and immigrant flows.
While the Organization of American States has called for an expanded recount, muted U.S. statements speak merely of “monitoring closely” and urge “calm and patience.” Meanwhile, on Nov. 28, in the midst of the unfolding chaos, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly certified that Honduras has made enough progress combating corruption to receive the latest installment of U.S. aid. Responses like this risk abetting a coup d’etat in the making.
A first coup, in 2009, paved the way for Hernandez to become president. Since then, such violence and fear have reigned that journalists and activists often write down their answers during one-on-one interviews and ask interlocutors to take the batteries out of their cellphones. Homicides have soared, and small-business owners often can’t tell whether they’re being extorted by a gang or the police. No wonder so many Honduran children have taken the dangerous route north to the United States.
The above is plenty of cause for alarm. But don’t let it hide the real story.
Hernandez has spent years working to ensure the outcome of this election. Three years ago he packed the Supreme Court with loyalists, which later obliged him by striking down a constitutional term limit that would have prevented him from running again. Meanwhile, he has consolidated his hold on the armed forces, police, public prosecution, agencies overseeing infrastructure contracting, oversight institutions such as the High Tribunal of Accounts, social welfare agencies that can trade handouts for votes, and, of course, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
So when Hondurans headed to the polls two Sundays ago, there was little reason to believe Hernandez could possibly lose. In fact, there seemed little incentive to turn out at all. Everything in Hondurans’ experience suggested that this election would be only a scripted performance of democracy, not the real thing.
But turn out they did. From villages perched on forested slopes, where indigenous farmers plant coffee and stand up to mining corporations, from the gang-controlled barrios — they turned out. Factory workers, who sew the clothes and assemble the electronics we pounce on in post-Thanksgiving cyber-sales, turned out. Agricultural laborers who pick the cantaloupes, haul the bananas and harvest the shrimp that stock our supermarkets turned out. Nurses and teachers whose pensions have been lost to corruption, people recently deported from the United States — they all turned out.
Twenty-four hours after the polls closed, with 57 percent of ballots counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla held a commanding five-point lead. “The technical experts here say it’s irreversible,” one of the electoral tribunal’s magistrates told Reuters. Hardly daring to believe what they had achieved, euphoric crowds spilled into the streets.
Then the machinations began. Orders came for counting to cease. The top election official reported a mysterious “computer glitch” via Twitter. When numbers began trickling out again 36 hours later, Hernandez was pulling ahead. He now allegedly leads by 1.6 points.
Hondurans aren’t having it. This past Sunday, they organized huge marches to demand a proper recount. And in a jaw-dropping development, the police in the capital announced the next day they would cease enforcing a declared curfew. “We don’t want to repress and violate the rights of the Honduran people,” a spokesman told the Guardian.
Hondurans have sent an inspiring message of faith in the power of democracy to deliver a better future to their beleaguered country. They deserve U.S. support. Two months ago, Tillerson assured Hondurans of the U.S. commitment to “our joint efforts to strengthen democratic institutions in the region.”
Washington should stand by those words. The United States must demand a full and impartial recount, making the release of aid contingent on that step. Without action, declarations in praise of democracy are just hollow words. They feed the despair that drives people whose hopes of accountable government have been trampled to give up on their country and leave.
For now, Hondurans are standing and fighting for good government. This time, let’s stand with them.