The Honduran elections are a choice between a powerful right-wing government and an opposition coalition of liberal centrists and radical leftists seeking to unseat a criminal regime. But as much as this is a referendum on the right-wing government, it is equally a referendum on U.S. power and Honduras’ status as a client of Washington.
HONDURAS (Analysis) — As Hondurans went to the polls to elect a new government Sunday, the country was looking both forward to the future and backward to a recent and tragic past. With the contest primarily between current right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández (running for re-election despite being forbidden by the country’s constitution) and opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, citizens faced a stark choice between a continuation of the current regime and a different, albeit less than fully progressive, center-liberal course.
And while the 2017 elections are in themselves critical, they are simultaneously a product of the events of 2009, when a U.S.-sponsored coup ousted the democratically elected leftist government and replaced it with the handpicked right-wing government that remains in power. In this way, Honduras’ elections are a chance to usher in a new political era, and it is hoped, begin to close the book on a shameful chapter marked by violence and neocolonial exploitation and subjugation.
The 2017 Election and the exploitation of Honduras
Although final results are not expected until Thursday, November 30, all indications point to an electoral victory for the opposition candidate Nasralla, who maintains a steady lead over Hernández. However, there have been repeated accusations of potential election rigging by the right-wing government, with some accusing Hernández of using the power of governmental institutions, such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, to steal the election.
Former presidential candidate of the left-wing Libre Party, Xiomara Castro, explained rather bluntly to Al Jazeera:
They already stole the election from us once [referring to her 2013 presidential bid]…We must not allow four more years of suffering and pain like we have had to live these past four years with the government of Juan Orlando Hernández.”
Indeed, for many, this election is a callback to the disputed 2013 election, in which current president Hernández defeated Castro amid myriad claims of irregularities and outright electoral fraud. Perhaps even more painfully, the election reopens the wounds of the 2009 coup, which removed the democratically elected government of José Manuel Zelaya, replacing him with a right-wing dictatorship handpicked by the United States (more on that later).
In this election, the right-wing government has enjoyed mostly uncritical support from international capital, as well as the big-money interests inside the country. Despite gross human-rights abuses — including the deliberate targeting of environmental, indigenous, and women’s-rights activists by powerful Honduran elites — Honduras remains a darling of Wall Street and Washington. As Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group explained to Bloomberg:
[Hernández’s support] reflects the fact that the country is more comfortable with the more business-friendly, conservative track that he is on. The economy is doing well under him, he’s helped to reduce crime quite a bit and he has done quite a bit in terms of changing investor perception.”
Grais-Targow’s comments reflect the erroneous assumption by many pollsters that Nasralla has had less support than Hernández in the run-up to Election Day. Still Hernández was indeed supported by powerful interests — which should come as no surprise given that when Hernández’s government wasn’t busy ethnically cleansing Afro-indigenous communities to make way for golf courses and resort hotels, it was preoccupied with prostrating itself before the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
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In 2014, Hernández signed a three-year deal with the IMF, with the usual “structural adjustment” strings attached (i.e., deficit reduction using austerity measures). Predictably, the arrangements have benefitted the wealthy elites in the country, and investors internationally, while doing irreparable harm to workers and the poor in Honduras. While Honduras has received rating upgrades from Moody’s Investor Service and S&P Global Ratings, and the country’s bond values have skyrocketed, deficit reduction has directly impacted ordinary Hondurans in the form of reduced subsidies in everything from energy and transportation to basic staple foods, as well as higher taxes and budget reductions.
In addition, Hernández has presided over a massive push to further privatize the energy sector, among other industries, which has directly impacted indigenous communities, especially with respect to hydroelectric dam projects.
Hernández has been an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S.-backed “aid” program called the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which is merely the latest in a series of neoliberal regional integration plans that seek to open the country to vulture investors while privatizing public institutions, all under the pretext of tackling the migration “problem.”
As Lorena Cabnal — an indigenous, feminist activist — told The Nation in 2016:
It’s not true that in [Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador] there has been an economic stimulus that has developed and strengthened education, health, and infrastructure … Quite the contrary: Impoverishment has gotten worse, and the big security problems haven’t been resolved.”
As Cabnal correctly notes, the Honduran regime has merely exacerbated many of the underlying problems in the country, while providing the veneer of an economic success story. Moreover, Hernández has been able to posture as the man who tackled the Central American child migration issue, all the while foisting destructive neoliberal economic policies on the people.
I think that justifying the Alliance for Prosperity in the context of what happened in 2013 and 2014, when they talked about a huge migration of unaccompanied boys and girls to the U.S, I think it is twisted. Really, what they want to justify is a neoliberal reconfiguration of these governments.”
Nasralla and the Opposition
While he’s an unlikely candidate to unite the opposition, former sports-journalist, TV-presenter, and CEO of Pepsi Honduras, Salvador Nasralla (his parents are of Palestinian descent), has become the public face of the united movement seeking to unseat the right-wing government. His anti-corruption platform has been well-received by a Honduran public eager for the militarized, corrupt quasi-dictatorship to be removed.
In an exclusive interview with MintPress News, Honduran-American political analyst Ramiro Fúnez explained that:
Most Hondurans, both on the mainland and in the United States, are celebrating Salvador Nasralla’s [expected] win. Hernández was the establishment and coup candidate who represents the local compradors and multinational elites. Nasralla is no socialist, but he represents something different for Honduras. A Honduras that is self-reliant and free of corruption.
The mood in the country and among the expat community is excitement and euphoria. This is the first time it is overwhelmingly clear that the National Party is unpopular and not fit to rule the country anymore. And it’s so obvious that Nasralla won…The point isn’t whether Nasralla is liked or not. The point is that the National Party is largely seen as corrupt, unpopular and desperate to retain its grip on power.”
As Fúnez notes in his comments, the left unified behind Nasralla’s candidacy despite his centrist politics. While socialists would undoubtedly have preferred a more Zelaya-like candidate (not to be confused with the current third-place candidate, also named Zelaya), it seems that hatred of the current regime was enough to galvanize a united front behind Nasralla. In fact, the opposition alliance is temporary, and primarily driven by the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), the forces of the Left in Honduras.
Speaking about possible unrest and/or destabilization surrounding the election results, Fúnez noted:
There are most certainly fears that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal will pull a fast one and declare Hernández the winner, even though it’s overwhelmingly clear that Nasralla won. All of the six cities in the United States that participated in the election (NYC, Washington, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Boston) were entirely won by Nasralla. The same goes for most departments in the mainland.
There is certainly a possibility of violence resulting from the election, but it will most likely come from the indignance of the masses against the political elite if Nasralla’s victory is repealed.”
Were the government to move to invalidate the election results and somehow hand the win to Hernández, it would be yet another indication that the country has been transformed into a complete and total client of the United States, a transformation that many activists and analysts have been highlighting since 2009.
Honduras: U.S. military foothold in Central America
In a 2015 interview with CounterPunch, Lucy Pagoada, the U.S. Coordinator of FNRP and LIBRE, described her native Honduras as having been militarized since the 2009 coup against Zelaya:
It has turned into a large military base trained and funded by the U.S. They even have School of the Americas forces there…There have been high levels of violence and torture since the coup against the resistance and the opposition.”.
This conclusion is confirmed by a report from the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) which noted:
The steady increase of U.S. assistance to [Honduran] armed forces [is] an indicator of tacit U.S. support. But the U.S. role in militarization of national police forces has been direct as well. In 2011 and 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST)…set up camp in Honduras to train a local counternarcotics police unit and help plan and execute drug interdiction operations…Supported by U.S. helicopters mounted with high caliber machine guns, these operations were nearly indistinguishable from military missions, and locals routinely referred to the DEA and Honduran police agents as “soldados” (soldiers).”
The shameful, sordid history of U.S.-backed “contra” death squads in Central America should immediately come to mind when one reads the accounts of military and paramilitary operations carried out in Honduras today. Indeed, Berta Caceres, perhaps the most high-profile activist murdered in the country in recent years, was assassinated in an operation linked directly to the Honduran military and powerful elites.
As the NACLA report continued:
According to The New York Times, five “commando-style squads” of FAST teams have been deployed across Central America to train and support local counternarcotics units…In July 2013, the Honduran government created a new “elite” police unit called the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group, or TIGRES (Spanish for “tigers”). The unit, which human rights groups contend is military in nature, has been deployed in tandem with the new military police force and has received training in military combat tactics from both U.S. and Colombian Special Forces units.”
Put simply, the U.S. has transformed Honduras into a militarized proxy-client state that can serve as a base of operations for U.S. power projection throughout the region. Indeed, the U.S. military either controls or has access to no less than eight military installations in Honduras, including the infamous Soto Cano Air Base, which is the product of more than $100 million worth of U.S. Department of Defense contracts since 2009.
All this has been achieved under the careful stewardship of the Hernández Government. No wonder Washington and Wall Street see a “stable” regime in Tegucigalpa as the paramount concern. Stability means continued U.S. hegemony in a region where leftist leaders have challenged that hegemony in recent years, and a friendly climate for Wall Street investors and speculators.
Obama, Clinton, and the legacy of the 2009 coup
None of the neoliberal economic exploitation or de facto military occupation of Honduras would be possible were it not for the illegal ouster of the Zelaya Government in 2009. And while the impacts of that coup are still being felt, it is critical to recall the decisive role Washington played in bringing it to fruition.
For many liberals and progressives, the 2009 coup against Zelaya was the first indication that “President Hope and Change” was just “Barack Obama: The new face of the Empire.” Obama — with his powerful Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton — facilitated the coup, though it was Clinton herself who helped to orchestrate the installation of the right-wing government that continues in power today.
In fact, Clinton admitted openly, and quite brazenly, her central role in legitimizing, supporting, and providing political cover for the illegal, and internationally condemned, coup against Zelaya. As respected economist and Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot incisively noted, Clinton stated clearly in her book Hard Choices:
In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico… We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
Clinton utilized her longtime associates Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliff to rally support in Washington behind new elections to replace the legally and democratically elected Zelaya government. Davis, as has been noted by a number of journalists, is a direct representative of powerful business elites in Honduras.
Davis himself explained this fact in an interview just weeks after the coup, when he stated:
My clients represent the CEAL, the [Honduras Chapter of] Business Council of Latin America…I do not represent the government and do not talk to [interim] President [Roberto] Micheletti. My main contacts are [billionaires] Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I’m proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law.”
Indeed, Davis quite candidly exposed himself as an agent of powerful oligarch financiers and landowners who, until the election of Zelaya, had always maintained firm control of the reins of government in Honduras.
And those powerful interests have remained entrenched in Honduras since 2009, with their power today fronted by the Hernández Government.
What a President Nasralla would mean for Honduras and Latin America
Given everything that has happened to Honduras since 2009, it should come as no surprise that many Hondurans see an electoral victory by Nasralla as a critical turning point. While he may not be the perfect candidate, Nasralla could represent a significant change in Honduras’ political trajectory, away from being a U.S. client and back toward the independent path charted by Zelaya before June 2009.
As political analyst Ramiro Fúnez told MintPress:
The elections represent a decisive turning point in Latin America’s pink tide. Ecuador has moved to the right under President Lenin Moreno. Chile has moved to the right under President Michelle Bachelet. Unfortunately, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN has kept a low profile. However, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba – the most radical governments – have come out of successful local elections. What happens in Honduras could turn the tide.”
Indeed, Honduras’ elections are, at least in some ways, shaping up to be a barometer for the political trends throughout Latin America. The rightward lurch seen in Brazil after the ouster of Dilma Rousseff — and in Argentina with the accession of the right-wing, neoliberal Macri regime — have had a resounding impact. At the same time, the election of Nasralla could open a window of opportunity for progressive political forces to rally. Fúnez continued:
“Nasralla said he wants to call for a National Constituent Assembly, similar to Venezuela. It’s possible he could move to the left, like Mel Zelaya, and join ALBA and the Bolivarian movement. It’s also possible that he will align with Moreno, Bachelet and Ceren and keep the country under neoliberal rule. However, the point is that this represents an opening for Honduras that hasn’t been possible under a strictly right-wing, pro-U.S. regime since the 2009 coup.”
And it is this possibility that has inspired millions to support an otherwise center-liberal candidate. It is the possibility for a better future.
It is hope for Honduras – hope to turn the page from 2009 and the brutality of the last decade. Hope that Berta Cáceres, Margarita Murillo, Vicky Hernández Castillo, and countless other activists will not have died in vain. Rather, their deaths will have been part of a broader, longer struggle for freedom and justice.
Is an electoral victory for Nasralla, and the defeat of the right-wing coup government, the end-goal of the struggle for social justice and liberation? Not by a long shot.
But it’s not a bad start.
Top photo | Supporters of opposition Alliance presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla chant slogans in front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 27, 2017. Early results from Honduras’ presidential election Monday showed leftist challenger Nasralla with a surprise lead over incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez, both of whom had claimed victory. (AP/Rodrigo Abd)