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Social movement protesters on the streets of Honduras. Photo: Giorgio Trucchi
For days after 1 December, when the National Party (NP) was returned to power in widely disputed elections, thousands of people protested on the streets of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. The student movement in particular declared that they were not going to be intimidated by widespread political persecution in the country.
The main challenger to the NP in the presidential elections was Xiomara Castro of Libertad y Refundación (Freedom and Refoundation) or Libre (Free) for short. In her words: ‘Libre is a progressive, peaceful, democratic revolutionary, left-wing party, which openly opposes violence and the failed exploiting neoliberal model that has impoverished our people.’
Following the US-backed military coup in June 2009, which ousted Castro’s husband President Zelaya, Libre emerged as the political wing of the National Front of Resistance (FNRP). The coup left Honduras in a political, institutional, economic and social crisis as the NP seized power through fraudulent elections in November 2009 that most of the international community – except the United States – rejected as illegitimate. The NP’s subsequent control of key government institutions, such as the supreme court, the military and the supreme electoral tribunal (TSE), has allowed it to further undermine democracy.
Grassroots monitoring groups recorded various violations during the elections and reported contradictory and widely disputed voting results. According to data provided by Libre and gathered by monitors at the polls, with a quarter of the votes counted Xiomara Castro was winning with 32 per cent of votes, followed by the NP with 25 per cent. However, when the official results were released Xiomara Castro received 28.8 per cent of the vote, behind the NP’s 36.8 percent. The Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), another new opposition party, received 13.5 percent.
Widespread irregularities were reported, including people not receiving their identity cards in time to vote; dead people appearing on the electoral roll, as well as living people showing up as dead; and incorrect photos and registration addresses on identity cards. The TSE has attempted to explain these as only ‘problems with the electoral censuses’ rather than evidence of corrupt practices. Other complaints include reports of vote-buying in exchange for the ‘bono mil’, a benefit for poor people.
These observations have been confirmed by Leo Gabriel, a delegate from the official EU observer mission, who subsequently denounced the EU’s preliminary report. He says that there was a lack of transparency in the electoral process and a hidden alliance with some small parties and the NP that involved the selling and buying of votes. The Alliance for Global Justice agrees that the election was fraudulent and says that although it was unclear who won, it was not a free and fair electoral process.
Libre and PAC have denounced the election as a fraud. Libre claims that some 20 per cent of the polling station results processed by the TSE are inconsistent with the results at the actual voting locations. They demanded a recount that the NP refused.
In an address to protesters, Xiomara Castro declared that ‘the challenge, the struggle for freedom and justice in Honduras is just beginning. In this new phase, we will continue with the organisation and political education of the people, building a pluralistic and democratic open modern party. Hegemony in Honduras is no longer defined by only two political parties. I invite all opposition MPs to join me. In opposition we must learn to govern from below.’
One of the most alarming issues to have characterised the past four years has been the deterioration of human rights. Along with many other Libre politicians and advocates, Castro received an increasing number of death threats in the weeks leading up to the elections. The evening before the vote two leaders of a rural farmers’ group, who were also Libre members, were murdered after leaving poll monitoring training. A week later, high-profile Libre activist José Antonio Ardon was kidnapped and later found dead. And on 7 December, journalist Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, a Libre supporter, was murdered in his home. At least 20 people associated with Libre were killed in pre-election violence. No fewer than 30 journalists have been killed since 2009.
Honduras is a strategic ally of the United States and home to one of the largest US military bases in the hemisphere. This connection has been reinforced under the NP government, with the US training several Honduran military and special police forces, such as the Honduran tactical response team, the Tigres, to ‘combat drugs trafficking’ and criminal gangs, and the joint taskforce Bravo. US military expenditure for Honduras has gone up every year since 2009. The US spent $25 million last year to make its barracks at the Soto Cano air base permanent, and $89 million to keep 600 US troops based there.
As with previous election frauds against progressive parties in Latin America, the US response has been decisive. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Juan Orlando Hernández on 11 December, lauded the election’s record turnout and commended a process that he characterised as ‘generally transparent, peaceful, and reflect[ing] the will of the Honduran people’.
The political opposition does have a chance to change the power balance in Honduras, but international attention and denunciation of the continued human rights abuses and oppression by the NP and its allies remain vital to prevent further escalation. ‘There is a lot of anger. People feel helpless and refuse to accept the election results,’ says women’s collective Codemuh, ‘but we will keep fighting this oppressive capitalist system that increasingly plunges us into misery.’
Roos Saalbrink works for the Central America Women’s Network (CAWN) and has worked with a women’s foundation in Honduras