MEXICO CITY – In Honduras, stolen elections, followed by accusations of fraud, street demonstrations, and military repression, are business as usual. So it wasn’t exactly shocking when the presidential election in late November, marred by numerous irregularities in the vote count, led to all three. But the consequences are likely to reverberate throughout Latin America.
Decades of foreign intervention in Honduras have caused the country’s current predicament. From 1903 until 1925, Honduras faced continuing incursions by United States troops. In the 1980s, during the violent US-backed effort to bring about regime change in neighboring Nicaragua, Honduras was turned into what some in the military jokingly referred to as “the world’s only land-based aircraft carrier.” Today, it functions as an important transit point for drugs shipped from South America to the US.
But, in recent years, there have been efforts by foreign powers to play a more constructive role. In particular, America’s previous president, Barack Obama, committed the US to putting aside decades of mutual recrimination with its Latin American neighbors, and facilitated the development of an Inter-American system of collective defense of democracy and human rights.
The crown jewel of this effort was the normalization of relations with Cuba in 2016. With that, there seemed to be no reason why all countries in the hemisphere should not agree to use the tools created since 1948 to defend democracy and human rights in the region, regardless of short-term geopolitical considerations.
The main regional legal tools are the 1948 Bogotá Pact, which created the Organization of American States (OAS); the 1969 Pact of San José or American Convention on Human Rights, which gave rise to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter. There is also the relatively long-standing OAS practice of sending Election Observer Missions, usually led by former presidents or foreign ministers, to observe voting in various countries.
While not every country is a party to all of these instruments, they have, collectively over time, been useful, if imperfect, instruments for upholding their respective causes. Yet the current situation in Honduras amounts to a second critical test of the system they comprise – the first being the semi-coup that deposed then-President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. What happens now can either legitimize the mechanisms that have been created, or weaken them severely.
The election in November was monitored by an OAS mission, as well as by one from the European Union. When, on the day following the vote, with ballots from just 57% of polling sites recorded and the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, leading by more than 5%, counting suddenly ceased, both missions, as well as the opposition, demanded a partial or total recount. But they haven’t shown much resolve since.
For the two weeks following the vote, the Honduran electoral authorities insisted that the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, won by 1.5%, owing to a (statistically improbable) surge of votes for him in rural areas. As if to appease complaints, the authorities then carried out a partial recount of less than one-third of the ballots cast, altering the final result, but not sufficiently to overturn Hernández’ victory. On December 15, they made Hernández’s victory official.
The EU mission decried the Hernández government’s electoral shenanigans, but also stated that the recounts and comparisons of tally sheets with computerized data showed no significant change in the results. It neither endorsed nor rejected the official outcome.
Conversely, the OAS mission decided that it could not conclude which of the two leading candidates won. But Hernández rejected OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro’s proposal of a new election, stating that Hondurans would have to wait four years for another vote. Other Latin American countries – including Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico – did not push back, and quickly recognized Hernández’s victory, as did the US.
Meanwhile, Nasralla, continuing to insist that he won, has refused to concede. And street protests – and the police and military response to them – have continued to rock the capital and other important cities.
There are no real winners amid this confusion and confrontation, though of course some are doing better than others. Hernández achieved his goal of becoming Honduras’ first president in decades to be re-elected, though he will find that his term is permanently tarnished by the OAS mission’s report on vote tampering.
Moreover, the US is surely pleased that the Honduran president is close to President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and a stalwart supporter of Kelly’s drug war in Central America. Nasralla, by contrast, is closely aligned with Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (the so-called ALBA countries).
But perhaps the biggest winner is Venezuela’s radical populist government, which can now spend the next four years questioning Hernández’ election and supporting his adversaries. It benefits further from the fact that Almagro, who has played a notable role in promoting the defense of democracy and human rights in Venezuela, has now been discredited, undermining the entire OAS election monitoring process. With the legitimacy of next year’s elections in Venezuela likely to be questioned, that is not a minor advantage for President Nicolás Maduro.
Once again, a serious breach of representative democracy has occurred in Latin America, despite all the tools that have been created in recent years. An unfair and scarcely free election was probably stolen, or at best, tainted to the point that the result cannot be considered reliable. Honduras may be a small and poor country, but the effects of this failure are likely to be far-reaching.
Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.
By Jorge G. Castañeda