Is Honduras On the Brink of Change? New Elections Could Restore Leftists to Power


Hondurans will go to the polls November 24 with an opportunity to elect a left-leaning government that could challenge the rampant corruption in the country and reinstate some sort of democratic rule for the first time since the military coup of 2009.  

The imminent election represents a choice between two extremes: a continuation of a harsh neoliberal policy enforced through extreme violence that has been the status quo in Honduras, or a possible turn toward much-needed reform with a win by the newly formed LIBRE party (the party of Liberty and Refoundation) that is currently leading the polls.

The election of a left-leaning government in Honduras could change the political and economic trajectory of the country and the region.

A shift to the left in Honduras would likely be considered a potential threat by the U.S. government. With Chinese investment threatening U.S. economic dominance in Latin America and a left-leaning alliance of governments in South America gaining autonomy and international support, U.S. influence in the region has been slipping.

Honduras remains a linchpin for U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.  

The Elections

There are three parties vying for a top spot in the Honduran presidential elections: the newly formed, left-oriented LIBRE party, the center-right Liberal party and the hyper-conservative National party. Throughout 2013 the LIBRE party has led in the polls with the National party in a fairly close second. Plagued with internal problems, the Liberal party has fallen to third place.

The LIBRE party was formed after the 2009 military coup ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya himself started the party and his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is LIBRE’s presidential candidate in the coming elections.

Castro is a favorite of poor campesinos and much of the left in Honduras, due to her strong messaging against the coup and post-coup government. Her platform calls for a reinstitution of the reforms started under Zelaya’s administration and she is pushing to convene a constituent assembly in order to write a new constitution for Honduras. She takes a strong stance against the militarization of the Honduran police.

Although it is clear LIBRE is not on equal footing financially with other corporate-backed parties, evidence of its campaign can be seen throughout Honduras. Huge pro-LIBRE billboards line the main highways leaving San Pedro Sula. In the countryside, the red LIBRE flag can be seen flying in front of many houses. Some people have even made their own LIBRE flags and posters.

Castro's policies represent the antithesis of those of the National party, whose main platform is to have a soldier “on every corner.” The National presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is the current leader of congress, and promotes policies virtually identical to those of current-president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, also of the National party. From supporting the militarization of Honduras to pushing for major concessions to international corporations, Hernandez shows no signs of changing the status quo in Honduras.   

In a blatant disregard for democratic process, Hernandez in 2012 orchestrated a “technical coup” and removed four elected Supreme Court justices, replacing them the next day with others he handpicked. Congress then illegally appointed a new attorney general to a five-year term in August of this year.

As a result, Hernández and his party control all the key reins of state power, including the electoral machinery and the military,” wrote Dana Frank in an article for the Nation. Many of those reins of power will remain in place even after this election.

The Liberal party has traditionally been a softer version of the National party. Although its candidates preach a more populist line, their policies often don’t live up to their rhetoric. Ex-president Manuel Zelaya was a member of the Liberal party before he alienated many party leaders by initiating popular reforms.

The coming elections will also determine seats in the National Assembly. There are a total of nine official parties running in the elections.  

Aside from LIBRE, there is another new party on the left called the Anti-Corruption party that has become popular with the country’s youth and has the potential to win a portion of the legislative seats. On the far right is another new party, the Honduran Patriotic Alliance, whose presidential candidate is Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, leader of the coup in 2009. It is unclear if this party has a strong following.

Whomever wins the presidential race will have to work with various parties to put together a coalition that constitutes a majority of the assembly.

Many powerful interests, both national and international, have stakes in this election.  

U.S. officials have already attempted to discredit the LIBRE party in favor of other more conservative parties. U.S. Congressmen Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Albio Sires (D-NJ) of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on October 16 expressing their concern over the coming elections in Honduras. Framing their argument in the context of national security, the war on drugs and anti-socialist rhetoric, the congressmen claimed the stakes could not be higher in Central America:

In Honduras, it is troubling that leading candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya and an ardent support of the late Hugo Chavez’s movement, has vowed to pursue a constitutional referendum without providing specific details. Ms. Castro’s husband pursued a similar effort before being deposed. Given the abuse of the democratic process in Venezuela, we are concerned that a similar trajectory will take hold in Honduras.”  

Salmon and Sires urged the U.S. government to send the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute to monitor the coming elections in Honduras. The IRI and NDI have traditionally been used to legitimize fraudulent elections that favor the U.S. government’s party of choice. Both the IRI and NDI condoned the 2009 election of Lobo, which was reportedly rife with fraud.  

Many expect to see similar cases of fraud in the 2013 elections. Reports of threats and intimidation have increased in the months leading up to the polls. According to Rights Action, since 2012, at least 18 LIBRE activists and candidates have been killed.

The Politics of Modern Honduras

Honduras has been under the control of either the National party or the Liberal party for the past few decades. Both parties have catered to U.S. interests and the interests of international lenders, often over the interests of their own people. One need only look to the number of U.S. military bases in Honduras or to the many corporate concessions, from mining to sweatshops, to see that this is the case.

This trend was fractured in 2006 when the Liberal party’s Manuel Zelaya took over as president. In the first years of his presidency, Zelaya began to ally his administration more with the ideas of Hugo Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, rather than the red, white and blue corporate and military interests to the north.  

However, just as he was beginning to implement modest reforms, including raising minimum wage and promoting a land redistribution program, Zelaya was removed from office at gunpoint and replaced by a military government. This military coup was carried out with the implicit approval of the U.S. government, which continues to send funding to the Honduran coup-government. About six months after the coup, Lobo took office in what were widely considered to be fraudulent elections. He used the Honduran military and police force to crush any opposition to his administration.

Between the coup in 2009 and 2012, there were more than 10,000 reports of abuses by the police and military. Three thousand complaints were filed with the Human Rights National Commissioner against the police alone. Despite the military coup, fraudulent elections and subsequent violent repression, the U.S. has continued to consider Honduras an ally in the region. Hillary Clinton has even praised Lobo for working to “strengthen democracy” after the coup.

In reality, there has been nothing even remotely close to democracy in Honduras for years. The country is run by a small band of wealthy elites who control everything from business to the military to politics. These oligarchs exercise their control through economic and political sanctions coupled with extreme violence.

The corrupt political structure in Honduras has been propped up by countless loans from international lenders, including the U.S. The U.S. also provides millions of dollars in military support to Honduras under the banner of strengthening its war on drugs.

Militarization and the War on Drugs

The so-called U.S. war on drugs has been the backdrop to any discussion of U.S. foreign relations in Latin America since the term was coined under the Nixon administration. With long stretches of deserted beaches and a failing infrastructure, Honduras has long been a stopping point for drugs on their way from producers in South America to consumers in the U.S. The U.S. has responded to this “national security threat” by training and arming the Honduran military and police, as well as sending its own operatives and DEA agents to the country.  

Honduras receives more military exports than any other country in Central America. The total amount of U.S. arms exports to Honduras reached over a billion dollars in 2011, more than half of its total exports to the Western Hemisphere.

But these efforts have not succeeded in quelling the flow of drugs or violence throughout the Central America. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, drug trafficking flights through Honduras increased by 89 percent, according to Honduras' Human Rights Commission. Simultaneously the murder rates in Honduras have skyrocketed, making San Pedro Sula the most dangerous city in the world.

While it doesn’t prevent drug related crime, the increased militarization does succeed in its implicit goal of securing U.S. dominance of the region. The military presence also essentially guarantees the dominance of the large landowners and corporations in Honduras.  

Corporate Land Grabs and Violent Repression

Honduras is the original “Banana Republic.” As early as 1913 the vast majority of its exports were controlled by the United Fruit Company. Little has changed even a century later. Land and resources remain under foreign and corporate control today.  

Due to corporate influence and neoliberal policies, land and resources are systematically taken from campesinos and indigenous people for the cultivation of African palms for palm oil, mining projects, hydroelectric dams and even a proposed “model cities” program. These land grabs happen with the tacit approval of the U.S. and would not be possible without U.S. military support. In many ways, the U.S. has benefited directly from these land acquisitions.

Nearly all mines in Honduras are proposed by subsidiaries of mining companies in either Canada or the US. Mining concessions have displaced indigenous villages, poisoned headwaters providing water to large sections of the country and led to numerous severe illnesses in nearby communities.

Model cities—cities that are privately owned and run without governmental oversight—were initiated in Honduras by U.S. business tycoons like Paul Romer and Michael Strong. Their projects are criticized for violating labor rights, civil rights and laws regarding foreign ownership of land. Model cities were found to be unconstitutional by the Honduran Supreme Court in 2011. The constitution has since been amended and Honduras is once again open to investors who would like to implement these privatization campaigns.

African palm cultivation for palm oil has sparked one of the most violent land battles in Honduras. Thousands of acres in the Aguan river valley were taken from campesinos by wealthy foreigners who manipulated the legal system, according to an article originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine titled “Palm Oil Oppression." When the campesinos did not want to sell their land, it was taken through intimidation or fraud. Today the corporate landowners employ private militias to violently remove campesinos from the land.

Across the country many Hondurans have organized themselves to take back sections of the land through non-violent protests and land occupations. Their protests have sparked a violent backlash from the police and military that serve the interests of the ruling elite.

Reports of torture, rape and murder are frequent. Over 60 people have been killed in Aguan alone since 2010, and many more are missing. Many of those targeted were organizers and activists. Over a dozen journalists have been killed since the 2009 coup with over 80 percent impunity for the perpetrators. Rumors of an official kill list with names of activists to be targeted have been circulating in the weeks leading up to the November 24 elections.   

“They’ve criminalized the struggle [for land],” reported Santos Cruz, a campesino leader. “What’s happening in Aguan is meant to silence the campesino movement. With no space for campesinos to take land, what are we going to do? People have nothing, no land, no way to sustain themselves.”

LIBRE's Potential

Many involved in these struggles for land and human rights see the election of the LIBRE party as an opportunity to reinstate democracy in Honduras. Remarkably for a first-time party, LIBRE has enough popular support to create a viable challenge to the two political parties that have traditionally controlled Honduras.  

However, there are so many variables in the coming election that it is difficult to have a clear analysis of the future.  

It is possible that there will be obvious fraud, potentially leading to major protests in the streets. It is possible that one party will win outright and there will be no protests or repression. But it is also possible that there will be repression of social movement groups in the month between the election and inauguration of a new president, especially if LIBRE wins. It is also unclear how many seats each party will take in the National Assembly.

What is clear, however, is that LIBRE is in the running for president and that the party itself is poised to take a significant number of seats in the National Assembly. But how much would actually change under a LIBRE administration is hard to predict.

While it is obvious that Hernandez and the National party would continue the violent and exploitative status quo in Honduras and the Liberals would not be much better, it is important not to overstate the possibility of progressive reforms under a Castro administration.  

The LIBRE platform is often non-specific, and void of any substantial reform plans. It has not been strong on specifics of what to do about militarization, the failed economy, or IMF loans.  

Although Castro said she would stand with campesino and indigenous movements, she has not spoken openly on behalf of the many campesino and indigenous organizers that are on the run due to threats of violence against them and their families. Castro probably does intend to re-implement some of the reforms started under the Zelaya administration, but in practice reforming Honduras will be easier said than done.  

The Honduran elite will still have a huge amount of power even if Castro were elected to presidential office and her party took a large portion of assembly seats. She would still have to form a coalition government to gain the assembly majority.  Also, the U.S. and other international interests would certainly use their weight to maintain Honduras as an ally in the region.

Positive change remains elusive in Honduras, despite this exciting electoral opening. However, considering the strong social and political movements that are alive in Honduras, the election of LIBRE could provide an opening for those movements to flourish and open the doors to democracy over the long term.

“In LIBRE people move with their own conviction, their own effort in the struggle,” said Jose Nestor Zorto of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. “They know that this is a moment when we have to make a mark in Honduras’ history. It is time for us to change our situation.”

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