The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The crisis in Honduras should matter to the U.S.

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A week after voting in a bitterly contested presidential election, Hondurans still don't know who their next president will be. The front-runners — incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández and opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla — have claimed victory. According to the country's election commission, Hernández has a narrow lead with most of the ballots counted. But there is substantial evidence of voter irregularities and fraud, which seemed only to occur after Nasralla had established a significant lead in the vote count.

“The fraud can no longer just be called fraud,” said Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist and political analyst, to the Guardian. “This is a type of electoral coup against the president-elect, Salvador Nasralla.”

Days of protests have hit the impoverished Central American nation of 8.5 million people, which suffers some of the worst rates of violence in the world. Residents of the capital, Tegucigalpa, have taken to the streets in defiance of a curfew and, in some instances, clashed with security forces. On Saturday, at least one protester, a 19-year-old named Kimberly Dayana Fonseca, was shot dead.

Nasralla, a popular television host at the front of an alliance of opposition parties, called for a repeat of the presidential election under the “supervision of an international electoral tribunal.” On his Twitter account, he urged the defense of “the victory of the people” and later posted footage of himself among demonstrators in Tegucigalpa. The government accused the opposition of inciting violence.

While the U.S. response to the situation has been rather muted, the dispute in Honduras ought to echo in Washington. The Honduran government gets millions of dollars in U.S. aid each year, and its elite police units have received training from the U.S. military. Hernández, a member of the right-wing National Party, is seen as a reliable U.S. ally with friends in high places, including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Trump Administration officials have spoken positively of Hernández's stewardship of Honduras, which one official recently described as being “on the cusp of a lot of change and positive development.”

“Washington has invested significant money in Central America to help turn the security and economic situation around,” wrote Daniel Runde, a Republican foreign policy adviser and former official in the George W. Bush administration, who sees Hernandez as an improvement on “bad” — that is, left-leaning — interlocutors in Guatemala and El Salvador. He adds that “if Hernández loses the election, the United States will have no effective partners in the region, the effectiveness of our billions of dollars would be at risk, and more people might be tempted to come to the United States.”

This, of course, has long been the dynamic in Central America, where the United States has sponsored generations of right-leaning politicians with ties to the security state. The current crisis is the worst facing Honduras since 2009, when the country's military ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya in a coup, in part after Zelaya moved to stage a nonbinding referendum over whether he could convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. His critics at the time, including Hernández and the country's political and financial elites, cast this as Zelaya's gambit to entrench his power in the vein of Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chávez. Republicans agreed, and the Obama administration — especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — seemed to ultimately acquiesce to the putsch.

Zelaya is back in the country after a brief political exile and is seen as the force behind Nasralla's campaign. Hernández, meanwhile, has maneuvered adroitly around checks on his rule to run for reelection. He has put allies on his country's Supreme Court and “is making a strategic effort to consolidate the levers of government power, placing them within his personal grasp,” according to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“He is a paradox. Credited with strengthening what had threatened to become a failed state, he is also reviled for stunting its development,” observed the Economist earlier this year. “He governs a country that serves as a conduit for much of the cocaine that enters the United States, and where police and politicians are enmeshed with drug-trafficking gangs.” According to reports, key allies of Hernández, including his brother, have had dealings with powerful cartels.

All the while, the country's security forces, enriched and empowered in the shadow of the U.S. war on drugs, have been accused of human rights abuses and targeting dissidents, including allegations surrounding the 2016 assassination of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist and outspoken opponent of Hernández.

“The Honduran security forces are using our tax payer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections,” said Cáceres's U.S.-based nephew, Silvio Carillo, to the Intercept. “We are giving Juan Orlando Hernández money so he can get away with murder.” Some Democrats have pushed for legislation making aid to Honduras contingent on anti-corruption measures and curbs on the killings of Honduran civil society figures, but its prospects of passage look dim in the Republican-dominated Congress.

This kind of American involvement in Honduras is nothing new. Honduras was the original “banana republic,” its people beholden to the needs of the United Fruit Company and other U.S. corporate interests, which bent the country's laws and politics to their favor. Even now, Hernández has courted controversy by pushing for an expansion of special economic zones that would lure investment from American and other foreign companies on generous terms.

But as a galvanized opposition takes to the streets and turmoil reigns, some observers in the United States see a cautionary tale for their own country.

Over the weekend, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) spoke of a recent trip to Honduras that opened his eyes to what's happening in his own country. In a tweeted video message, he said he had long assumed developing countries like Honduras “were on the path to be like the United States.” But now, with American politics deeply polarized and yawning social inequities being further entrenched, Ellison said he has reversed his analysis. Now, he believes, Honduras may actually represent a more likely “future” for Americans than the reverse.

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