February 1, 2018

The Damage to Democracy in Honduras

Anne Hobson

Program Manager, Academic & Student Programs

Honduran voters got more than they bargained for when two presidential candidates claimed victory in the Central American country’s recent election. Current President Juan Orlando Hernandez was seeking a second term—an illegitimate pursuit as far as the Honduran constitution is concerned. The main opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, had also claimed victory. Hernandez was sworn in on Jan. 27.

Despite Nasralla’s victory claim, Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the official electoral apparatus, declared President Hernandez the winner by a tight margin of 1.53 percent. A wave of violent protests and social turmoil then arose due to substantial evidence of voter irregularities and fraud. This is having a detrimental impact on the already struggling Honduran economy, paralyzing opportunities for growth and greater prosperity.

This election has been called the closest and most controversial in Honduran history. Institutions such as the Organization of American States, the U.S. embassy, La Union Interamericana de Organismos Electorales, and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission were engaged in the election process to ensure that no violations took place. In the Organization of American States’ final report, election observers detected anomalies and sloppy practices such as the crash of a computer server for three days during the election process, opened ballot boxes, and inexplicable change in vote-counting patterns.

Luis Almagro, the Organization’s secretary general, indicated that the only way to solve this dispute is a call for new general elections. However, the Hernandez administration already rejected this request, accusing the Organization of inflicting damage to the country’s reputation. Meanwhile the Trump administration and 13 other countries have already recognized the Electoral Tribunal’s results, leaving Nasralla’s party with less hope.

Under President Hernandez’s watch, the homicide rate fell by nearly 46 percent between 2013 and 2017. He is the first president to send criminals and drug lords to the United States for trial. Regardless, his re-election pursuit has been controversial even beyond the constitutional question. How did this happen?

In his role as the president of Congress in 2012, Hernandez illegally fired four members of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night. The next day he packed the court with his supporters. Predictably, these loyalists played a key role in the ruling in favor of his recent re-election. This consolidation of power between the executive and judicial branches threatens to permanently erode the system of checks and balances characteristic of a democracy.

Impunity, corruption, and human rights violations are contributing to growing economic turmoil. Protesters are assaulting small businesses, damaging public infrastructure, and blocking main roads in the country. La Prensa, a local Honduran newspaper, reported substantial losses in the private sector due to looting and decreases in daily sales. The Honduran Chamber of Commerce declared that the country faces $46.7 million in daily losses due to the partial immobilization of the economy. Blocked roads prevent daily transactions and the transportation of perishable commodities such as Honduran bananas, plantains, and crude palm oil.

The use of the foreign aid is another emerging point of discussion. Honduras has been a recipient of U.S. foreign aid since 1961. The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, has provided more than $3 billion in economic and social development assistance to the Honduran people. One of USAID’s main objectives is to strengthen democratic governance, including the promotion of human rights and the rule of law.

Thanks to the irregularities in the election process and to socio-political instability, the use of foreign aid by Honduran authorities is now under scrutiny. In the United States, proposals have been floated to make aid to Honduras contingent on anti-corruption measures.

Honduras has a history of violent and disruptive attempts to overextend executive power. When former President Manuel Zelaya sought measures to allow for re-election in 2009, it did not end well. The military banished him to Costa Rica after he attempted to modify the Constitution. After the coup, Honduras faced violence and instability as well as sanctions from multiple governments.

The United States, for example, suspended more than $30 million in foreign aid and reduced military cooperation to combat narcotics. Multilateral organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank froze more than $200 million in loans, nudging the country into an economic coma.

Honduras has reached a perilous tipping point. Only by upholding the democratic balance of power can they prevent more economic demise and social unrest. As Hernandez begins his next term and civil unrest continues, the president re-elect and other foreign leaders should take the concerns of human rights groups like Organization of American States seriously.