By Ian Eliot
The 2017 Honduran election was controversial before it even began. It would be the
first ever election since the Honduran constitution was amended in 2015 to allow
incumbent presidents to seek reelection, including President Juan Orlando Hernández.
This amendment was greatly divisive as it was pushed through strict partisan lines, by
a National Congress dominated by Hernández’s own National Party that had,
ironically, led a coup in 2009 to oust the democratically elected president Manuel
Zelaya, whom it believed was unconstitutionally aiming for a second term. This coup
was then met with widespread outrage across the Americas and plunged the nation
into a period of crisis. The National Party has remained in power ever since, steadily
building up support from the National Congress and the National Bureaucracy.
The move to amend the constitution provoked a great deal of outrage throughout the
country and allowed significant support for Hernández’s challenger Salvador
Nasralla, a left leaning candidate who built his campaign by challenging Hernández’s
perceived corruption and push for unprecedented power. Nasralla united many of the
disparate portions of the center and left leaning opposition to Hernández, and created
a potent coalition aptly named the Alliance Against Dictatorship. In the days leading
up to the election, Nasralla surged in the polls and seemed poised to come away with
a rather shocking victory.
This polling trend was confirmed on the day of the election. Although approximately
60% of the voting results tallied, Nasralla gained a solid lead with 45% of the vote to
Hernandez’s 40%. Following this initial announcement, vote counting halted for
several days, and when it resumed, there was a dramatic shift as Hernández’s vote share surpassed Nasralla’s by 42.92% to 41.42%, alarming both domestic and
international observers alike.
The Organization of American States immediately called these results into question,
noting massive statistical irregularities around the time 68% of the votes were
counted. Nasralla refused to accept the results and declared the election fraudulent,
and his supporters protested in the streets of Honduras. The Honduran government
responded with a crackdown, killing 16 people and injuring 20. It also issued a 10
p.m. curfew on the entire nation.
Many independent watchdog organizations and OAS monitors deemed the election
result as invalid. European Union monitors too joined the calls of electoral fraud
shortly after the OAS announcement. In a more extreme statement, the election was
described as “State Terrorism.” Despite 27 members of Congress speaking out against
the result, however, the United States officially recognized the result of this election,
followed by Canada and Mexico.
This recognition is deeply problematic as it legitimizes the unconstitutional and the
blatantly corrupt actions of the ruling National Party and its leader Juan Orlando
Hernández. Not only does it move back blatant election fraud and the administration’s
killing of 16 protesters, but it also sets a dangerous precedent of undermining the
OAS authority in Central American states. The OAS may carry little weight in North
America, but it has always been an important force in election moderation and
commentary throughout South and Central America. The United States’
unwillingness to stand by democratic institutions is deeply troubling and even reminiscent of the Cold War era foreign policy, in which expedience and cooperation
took precedence over democracy and the sovereignty of smaller nations.
While it would be tempting to blame this State Department decision solely on the
Trump administration, it has its roots in the Obama era policy. Following the 2009
coup, for instance, the Obama administration struggled to put together any coherent
stance or course of action in response. President Obama immediately declared that the
U.S. viewed the coup as illegal, and that it would continue to consider President
Zelaya as the legitimate democratically elected leader of the country. However, this
strong stance soon gave way to convolution as the State Department led by Hillary
Clinton refused Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recommendation
to officially declare the coup an “Illegal Military Coup under United States Law.” In
response, the U.S. began to dial back its language, soon ceasing to call the ousting of
President Zelaya a coup at all! It publically claimed to cut off aid to Honduras until
the situation was resolved, but in reality, cut $15 million from infrastructure
contributions and began contributing $200 million to military and policing in the
Central American nation instead. The US House Committee on International Affairs
then released a report that did not acknowledge the coup to be illegal, but President
Zelaya himself. The Obama administration finally settled on recognizing the interim
government and declaring the subsequent 2009 election legitimate.
The inconsistent rhetoric created major divides throughout the Americas. The OAS
voted to expel Honduras from the organization, a vote the US participated in and
agreed with. Many Latin American nations followed Brazil’s lead and refused to
recognize the interim government and the following election. This tension slowly
dissipated overtime, but the diplomatic scars remained. The US actions following the coup became a major talking point for many leftwing and anti-imperialist movements
across the continent. With this historical context in mind, it is in no way surprising
that the US has once again engaged in a contradictory pattern of denouncing while
recognizing Honduras and its fraudulent electoral system.
The US had worked hard to repair relations with the OAS and had succeeded in
keeping Brazil from leaving the organization (which eventually destroyed the forum).
It has constantly praised the OAS election monitoring and utilized it for many of its
policy decisions in the Americas, but refuses its authority as a legitimate organization
in disputes with Venezuela and Brazil. It has tried to keep anti-American regimes in
Bolivia and Venezuela out of power, but has undermined an organization that could
exert the soft power needed to convince other Latin American nations to do so. The
Bolivian Movement for Socialism and its leader Evo Morales, for instance, are in
such a situation as Morales seeks to run for an unconstitutional fourth term. The US
would ideally see Morales removed from office following his term, but it has neutered
a valuable tool to do so by damaging the legitimacy of the OAS and undermining its
own regional authority.
The United States has taken a convoluted and inconsistent stance on Honduras. While
its actions are expedient and have worked to address minor US desires in the region
(namely keeping Juan Orlando Hernández’s right wing National Party in power), they
will have long term consequences on regional stability and the United States’ ability
to exert soft power throughout the region. The United States not only surrendered
moral authority and its commitment to democratic principles, but also made errors
that could potentially handicap the nation’s long-term influence.