An election fraud with the taste of an imperialist coup
The word “fraud” sums up Honduras’ current situation,
not only because the electoral fraud on November 26 was blatant,
but also because much of Honduran society knew well beforehand
that the entire process leading up to the elections was riddled with it,
especially Juan Orlando Hernández’s controversial and illegal candidacy.
The immediate result of this colossal fraud is political and social upheaval,
and a future marked by an ungovernability that’s supremely hard to resolve.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
The general elections of November 26 add yet another new political tragedy to the long and growing list in Honduras. The promoters of the foreseen fraud executed before, during and after that date continue to be lords of both the laws and the weapons aimed at those who reject the dictatorship of reelected President Juan Orlando Hernández.
The most visible toll of the military response to the vibrant social protest against the fraud includes some 40 people killed between November 27 and January 27, at least half of them in the first 10 days of December when the presidency’s usurper decreed a curfew and ordered the Public Order unit of the Military Police to fire on them; another 1,500 wounded, beaten and tortured; and more than 50 jailed on accusations of sedition and commission of violent acts.
We all knew it
On December 17, after an endless string of inconsistencies and contradictions, unjustified delays, system failures and vote recounts, David Matamoros, the head of the discredited Supreme Electoral Court, finally announced that Juan Orlando Hernández had won the November 26 elections. It didn’t matter how many voices, both in Honduras and abroad, condemned the results as fraudulent and even called for new elections.
Washington didn’t immediately back Matamoros’ announcement even though we all knew incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández was its candidate. What it didn’t know was that, despite all its preparations to ensure Hernández’s his victory, he would lose the elections in a display of overwhelming grassroots rejection. When Matamoros ratified the victory, the US State Department realized it urgently needed to speak out. One final episode determined its decision.
December 21: A hard day for Lizzy
Thursday, December 21, was not a happy day for Elizabeth Flores Flake, although it dawned so splendidly that taking a walk through the ever beautiful New York Central Park was an inviting prospect. According to the calendar it was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but for Lizzy the day became interminable, hard to forget in both her brilliant political career and her seven years as Honduras’ ambassador to the United Nations.
After a sleepless night tormented by contradictory feelings, she carefully chose makeup that hid her anguish. She had never imagined that her father and teacher, former President Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, of Palestinian heritage, would call enjoining her to fulfill such a bitter task.
She arrived at the UN session chamber and took her seat. That day, a special session of the General Assembly would debate and vote on President Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Turkey and Yemen had requested the session on behalf of the bloc of Arab countries after the United States vetoed the UN Security Council’s proposed resolution that no decision on Jerusalem’s status would have legal effect.
“Us or them”
Lizzy had received from her father not just a call, but an order. She would have to support Trump’s decision. “You have to put feelings aside. Our future depends on this vote. Either they win, those who are ready to settle scores with us, or Juan Orlando wins, guaranteeing us both political and family stability.” Something along those lines must be what the father said to his daughter, who had never said NO to him.
When the time came to vote, she tried to ignore her throbbing heart, through which coursed Palestinian blood, and to avoid the looks of her Arab colleagues. She voted like a robot, with a vacant stare, against the motion and in favor of Trump’s decision.
She was only accompanied in her vote by the ambassadors of the United States and Israel; Guatemala, now in the hands of that clown.turned-politician, President Jimmy Morales; and half a dozen small Pacific island-States. The Arab bloc’s opposition to Trump’s decision was supported by 128 countries.
Lizzy hurriedly left the chamber, afterward, speaking to no one, while her father, who had learned to take pleasure in handling journalists, third-rate politicians and pious religious figures over the course of his political career starting in the 1980s, breathed a sigh of relief. The very next day the US government recognized Juan Orlando Hernández’s electoral victory.
A new coup d’état
With Washington’s recognition, it was a second coup d’état to take place less than a decade since the last one—this time, paradoxically, through elections. Its goal was the same as in 2009: to rid the playing field of Mel Zelaya, the “ghost” who haunted Flores Facussé’s nights with unsettled scores.
The State Department paid no attention to the dramatic call already made by Organization of American States General Secretary Luis Almagro for new elections. It also ignored Europe’s silence and that of various Latin American governments, all of them quite aware of the blatant irregularities in the process and the dimensions the grassroots protests were reaching.
It wasn’t the first time Washington didn’t take problematic signs into account. Back before the elections, the State Department had disregarded the illegality of Hernández’s candidacy for reelection and once the vote was cast, much of Washington turned a blind eye to the fraudulent maneuvers that tainted election day, shrugged off the massive grassroots rejection and ignored Hernández’s possible links to organized crime. He’s backed because he’s the Honduran political leader who guarantees the greatest servility in imposing US security policies in Central America. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said of Nicaragua’s Somoza, cut of the same dictatorial cloth as Hernández, “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.”
Ambiguous international recognition
Once Washington had spoken, recognition began arriving from one country after another, like leaves falling from trees in the northern hemisphere’s autumn. Nonetheless, even as they recognized the new President, all without exception echoed the need for a national dialogue, which Hernández himself had called for.
The lack of enthusiasm over Hernández’s reelection was evidenced by the absence of any world leaders at his January 27 inauguration, held in the national stadium under strict security measures. Outside the stadium hundreds of protestors were violently repressed with US and Israeli weapons, while Ana García, Hernández’s wife, sporting a Star of David around her neck, thanked God for the opportunity given her husband—and her—to continue being “His instruments” as government rulers.
The international call for a national dialogue conveyed evidence between the lines of diplomatic language that Honduras is facing a crisis and that, paradoxically, it is being provoked largely by the very government they themselves have recognized.
The fear of a ghost was the real winner
The fear of a ghost dictated the State Department’s acceptance of fraud. This ghost hovers around politician’s offices, business suites, civil society headquarters and embassies.
The ghost has a name: Manuel Zelaya Rosales. Many in Honduras have magnified him into a truly mythical figure, not unlike the monster of the Black Lagoon parents use to frighten their children into obedience.
In analyzing the heights reached by fear of this ghost, we can state with assurance that Juan Orlando Hernández didn’t win these elections, and fraud didn’t carry the day. The winner was fear of this ghost, with Washington’s prejudice against a government in which Zelaya would participate prevailing over all other considerations.
Washington never viewed opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla as any different from Zelaya. At most, they saw his possible presidency as a joke. The dominant belief in Washington was that Manuel Zelaya, the man with the big hat, would govern behind Nasralla.
Imposition of the old “Banana Republic” logic
With the fraud ratified, a coup d’état with an imperialist flavor has again put global geopolitical interests ahead of Honduras’ national interests. Once again the mentality that we’re just a “banana republic” carries more weight, leading our interests to be defined outside our country, without our country and against our country.
Sidestepping the tepid Democrats currently occupying the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the State Department and US Southern Command decided to close ranks against the danger they saw coming in the unpredictable government that could be put together by Salvador Nasralla and Zelaya Rosales, both of whom they brand as conduits for 21st-Century Socialism in its waning days.
Any alternative is to them better than what they see as such an unacceptable government, including continuing to back a proven mafia thug like Hernández. Better the devil you know than such a dreaded ghost, even when it means stumbling into the same old pitfall.
And stumble they will. Because Washington knows who Juan Orlando Hernández is and they know he lost. Juan Orlando knows it, Matamoros knows it, and the OAS and European Union observers know it. But most importantly, the majority of Hondurans know it better than anyone, and they have channeled this knowledge into rejection, resistance and rage, having voted not for Nasralla’s leadership or his capabilities, but against JOH, a figure who has shaped his own image as the most rejected politician in our country’s recent history.
Leaders in popular memory
When remembering the leaders who have governed Honduras in the last four decades, people underscore certain characteristics of each one.
The military officers who took office through coups in the 1970s are recalled mockingly for their pathetic ignorance. Then came the civilian Presidents who opened the period of representative democracy, starting with Suazo Córdova in 1982. Everyone in the country scoffs at mention of his name for his hick boasts and small-town-mayor style. He was followed by José Azcona del Hoyo, remembered for his petty response to international demands to remove the Nicaraguan counterrevolution from Honduran territory. The people have made his successor, Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero, the symbol of a corrupt government poster boy for kleptocracy.
Carlos Roberto Reina, who came next, has remained in the popular imagination as the President who wanted to tidy up institutionalism by promoting a useless “moral revolution,” although he did leave a positive mark by abolishing obligatory military service. Then came Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, Lizzy’s father. His name goes hand in hand with the devastating Hurricane Mitch, which hit during his term. He is remembered for how skillfully and dishonestly he bought off journalists and for having created the “media encirclement” still in place today.
JOH: the most rejected of all
Now into the new millennium, Ricardo Maduro has remained in people’s memory as the man with the iron fist, the one who spent his whole term in office avenging his son’s death and profiting from the aid that poured in following Hurricane Mitch.
Of the two last elected Presidents who came before JOH, as Juan Orlando Hernández is not always fondly known, Manuel Zelaya is associated with a “citizens’ power” that threatened the capitalist gains consolidated by the string of neoliberal heads of State from Callejas to Maduro and with bringing his government closer to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. He is also the man of the “fourth ballot box,” the idea of adding a box to the scheduled June 28, 2009, elections so voters could choose whether or not a constitutional assembly should be organized (a plan various state institutions declared illegal) and is also the victim of the US-supported coup the very day those elections were to have happened.
Roberto Micheletti, the interim President who replaced Zelaya until new elections could be held, is remembered, if at all, only for always stridently shouting “Long live Honduras!” three times just like the “gorilete” that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez dubbed him in an irreverent butchering of his name.
Pepe Lobo, who immediately preceded JOH, is visualized with his hand held out begging the international community for recognition and plugging the holes of the corrupt practices left by his closest collaborators, including his beloved wife whom he called “mi Rosa.”
And Juan Orlando Hernández? Once he is distanced from power, he will be remembered for his crude cynicism and unbridled ambition, for being the most shameless representative of the Honduran oligarchy. No other leader will pass into history as rejected as JOH.
This fraud wasn’t inevitable
Hernández’s continuation in government and the dramatic, convulsive situation generated by the November 26 fraud could both have been avoided. In the first place, the opposition parties, who were clear that Hernandez’s candidacy was in itself fraudulent due to its illegal nature, could have avoided it. Their participation in the electoral process was, to some degree, an endorsement of that illegality.
If instead of running candidates they had devoted themselves to creating a national citizens’ front of those opposed to the fraud his candidacy represented, they could have forced the fraudulent group to negotiate a way out that didn’t involve elections. We all knew that the circumstances in which the elections would take place would offer not a solution, but an even greater conflict.
Given this knowledge, why did the opposition participate? First because the population always finds elections an attractive contest, and second because what makes the overwhelming majority of Honduran politicians tick, be they from the traditional parties or the newer opposition, is the pursuit of any measure of power.
A strategy to whitewash the fraud
Because a national front against the fraud didn’t come together, Honduras now has a rejected leader in government who won’t easily prevail, as shown by the massive grassroots protests that followed his “triumph.” The challenge for Hernández and his team is how to whitewash the fraud and legitimate his illegitimacy. To this end they have begun a strategy with five concurrent lines of attack.
The first line is international, where they are seeking recognition and backing. Leading this line is former foreign minister and former security minister Arturo Corrales, an expert in the use of polls to create trends and now to whitewash fraud. Corrales began his work in the United States. It was he who suggested offering Washington Honduras’ vote backing Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital in exchange for the State Department’s quick recognition of Hernández, knowing that once it was given, other countries would soon follow suit.
The second line is national. It’s about putting a pretty face on the dictatorship in two ways: by the government calling for a national dialogue and by re-installing and re-institutionalizing the Ministry of Human Rights. Both paths have the international community’s unanimous backing, because what country in the world would reject dialogue and respect for human rights?
National dialogue, take two
JOH’s team already tried the strategy of calling for a national dialogue to calm down problems in 2015, amid the crisis caused by the uncovering of enormous corruption in the social security system. At that time an indignant, torch-wielding population rejected Hernández in dozens of marches.
That was when the slogan “Fuera JOH!” (Get out JOH!) first made its appearance; it was repeated over and over again during the electoral fraud. It is without a doubt the most popular slogan Honduras has known in a long time and even gave rise to the song “¡Es pa’ fuera que vas!” (You’re on your way out!), sung throughout the country and endlessly circulating in the social media. According to an Internet music poll, at the end of 2017 the song held third place among the 50 most listened-to songs that year in Honduras.
When Hernández and his team found themselves backed into a corner by the grassroots pressure to investigate, bring to trial and convict those who had looted the Honduran Social Security Institute, the government called for an “inclusive, open and unconditional” dialogue. But, not surprisingly, it only involved those aligned with the governmental mafia.
That dialogue gave birth to MACCIH
That 2015 dialogue did, however, give rise to the Mission Supporting the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), the government’s response to the crisis. Then-Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales set it up, together with OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro. This was not what the people were calling for in their torch-lit marches; they wanted an institution like the UN-sponsored International Anti-corruption and Impunity Commission in Guatemala (CICIG), which at that very moment was undoing Guatemala’s President and Vice President. The MACCIH was a hybrid whose mission has never quite come together, despite the good will of some of its members.
Corruption and its soulmate impunity are so impenetrable in Honduran power structures that when the MACCIH tries to investigate any legislative representatives for their acts of corruption, the regime leaps to their defense, arguing that no outsider can investigate these acts because Honduras has its own attorneys and judges capable of investigating and rendering judgment. Later, when the MACCIH showed itself determined to investigate paths of corruption involving at least 60 National Congress lawmakers, they themselves rushed to reform the laws to block the investigation and remove any risk to the impunity that’s protecting them.
The fruit of the 2015 dialogue was thus the normalizing of a situation that threatened to topple JOH. Once the crisis blew over, his team had a smooth road ahead to prepare his reelection, which is what has now set off a even bigger crisis than the first. Faced with still greater political and social upheaval, they are nonetheless trying once again to solve it with another round of dialogue whose sine qua non is to leave untouched the rules of the game that made the controversial election results possible.
The 2015 dialogue was neither open nor inclusive. It sought only to calm the crisis, not to resolve it. It functioned like an unattended pressure cooker that kept on boiling for two years until the electoral fraud blew the lid off, exploding all the underlying unresolved conflicts in every direction.
Ministry of Human Rights?
The other means for whitewashing the fraud nationally is to reinstate the Ministry of Human Rights, an institution that Hernández himself eliminated when he took office in 2014 and which he may now reopen under international pressure.
Even if he does reopen it, this ministry is truly counterintuitive if we consider the importance his government has invested in arming the forces of repression so they can more efficiently respond to grassroots protests, all in violation of the protestors’ human rights. It is likely that whatever this ministry does, it will be nothing more than the hangman’s smile and the torturer’s pat on his victims’ backs.
Whitewashing the fraud in the media
The third line of attack to whitewash the fraud is to strengthen the alliance with the country’s major media owners so they will raise Hernández’s human, professional, spiritual and family profile in their pages. The idea is that they will also highlight the benefits of a national dialogue to reconcile the Honduran family, spotlight the “vandalism” of those who resist accepting the rules “of the democratic game, where there is always a winner and a loser,” and of course emphasize the international community’s recognition of Honduras’ particular brand of democracy.
This line involves co-opting or bribing journalists, just as they tried with Salvador Nasralla, whom they considered the weakest link in the opposition alliance. If that fails, the work and private lives of journalists who balk will be stigmatized, portraying them as enemies of peace, allies of organized crime and promoters of vandalism and disorder.
The media siege will intensify in defense of the new government by pathways new and old. The sabotage that took down Radio Progreso’s antenna and tower the night of December 9 was just a warning of what could happen to media outlets that don’t submit to the dictates of this siege.
Buying armed assent
The fourth line of attack for whitewashing the fraud is to buy governability—but not governance—by investing more economic resources in strengthening the alliance with officers of the Armed Forces, the Public Order Military Police, the National Police and other collaborators.
This line has already begun to be implemented with the officers and classes of the National Police’s Cobra battalion, which headed an attempted mutiny a few days after the elections. Hernández personally put an end to the crisis with a lot of money. The success of this maneuver convinced him to apply it to all the various Armed Forces command structures, and also with civilians he needs to keep happy, to avoid any surprises in the post-fraud crisis that may move beyond his control.
Repression, pure and simple
The fifth line of attack for whitewashing the fraud is pure and simple repression of the opposition. Those who demonstrate leadership in opposition to the new government and work in the areas of greatest unrest will be criminalized. This is already happening with the capture of dozens of such leaders in which legal charges are being brought against them. The main grassroots opposition leaders will also be physically eliminated when necessary.
To guarantee the success of this line, Hernández decided to appoint new Army commanders, among them General René Orlando Ponce Fonseca. He is a personal friend of JOH who was trained in the 3-16 battalion, which functioned as a death squad and was responsible for the murder and disappearance of dozens of people in the 1980s.
While the new, “broad and inclusive” dialogue is being organized, the repressive forces are pursuing, capturing, torturing and disappearing people. If those captured are lucky, they are brought before the Office of Public Prosecutor to be accused of terrorism, damage of private property and sedition, then sentenced to years in jail without the right to bail or alternative measures.
Worst case scenario
With Washington’s recognition of Hernández’s reelection tantamount to a coup, Honduras has entered the worst case scenario, the one that polarizes and promotes confrontation with no possibility for negotiation that would establish checks and balances on the threat of dictatorship. This dictator and his rule are opposed by at least three-quarters of Honduras’ population and an opposition loosely coordinated but firmly united in its rejection.
This is the risky scenario, one leading inevitably to the ungovernability the US government chose by giving its backing to Juan Orlando Hernández. It is risky because not only will his government be unable to shake the stigma of fraud, it will continue to be a catalyst for conflicts, marches, protests, violence and deaths.
The regime that took office this January 27 will be the weakest government in recent Honduran history. Hernández’s first government was already marked by its scant legitimacy, given the discovered corruption levels involving public goods. Now, once again, his government lacks legality for having disregarded the sovereign will of the people in committing fraud and unconstitutionally asserting his power.
People are heard to be saying that “We have to make life impossible for this usurper” and “A government that steals peace from society cannot govern in peace.”
The government will have to buy hearts, minds and stomachs
To sustain itself this government will have to invest enormous sums in purchasing hearts, minds and and stomachs at all levels of society. The budgets for the presidential palace and the President’s discretionary spending will need to increase exponentially. It will be a mercenary government unable to maintain itself without investing fortunes in buying allegiances.
This government will also have to resort to even more dramatic fear and the force of arms to finally put down the protests. since it is Incapable of promoting any consensus and continually provokes only dissent. It will be strengthened only through threats, control and military intelligence schemes.
It will ceaselessly make efforts to build alliances with the country’s richest classes and with transnational capital. The privatization of public goods, multiplication of extractive projects and contracts based on bribes and blackmail will characterize a government that needs to ingratiate itself with those who have the power of the purse, both in Honduras and the United States.
It will also have to invest massively in media propaganda to solidify the media siege and generate favorable opinion among a public distracted by other topics. It will also permanently resort to alliances with both Catholic and Evangelical religious leaders, to buttress JOH’s extremely weak government with divine power. And finally, any legislation approved by the Honduran Congress will reflect a permanent realignment since, thanks to the fraud, Hernández has the backing of a majority of legislators.
A scene out of fiction
The electoral cycle ended with JOH’s inauguration on January 27, at least so say Washington, the international community and Hernández himself. Do the Honduran people agree with this perspective?
In an ideal scenario, one only imaginable in a work of fiction, the fraud is reversed and new elections are held under strict international supervision. It presupposes that Washington corrects its course.
A variation on this scenario is supported by the Liberty and Re-founding (LIBRE) party and its coordinator, Manual Zelaya. It calls for an international mediator who within a short time will examine the electoral process. On confirming the fraud, the mediator would either recognize Nasralla’s victory or else order a repeat of the elections, just between the two front-running candidates: Hernández and Nasralla. This too may as well be a fiction movie.
A more plausible scenario
Another scenario is possible. It is a medium-term scenario that involves building and strengthening a broad-based citizens’ coalition in defiance of the dictatorship that is capable of generating pressure from the most diverse sectors, gradually reducing the dictatorship’s maneuvering room.
The central point of such a coalition’s pressure should focus on the illegality of Hernández’s reelection and his government’s illegitimacy due to the electoral fraud and the crime of high treason—which is not subject to a statute of limitations—committed by the Supreme Electoral Court when it registered JOH as a candidate. From this angle, the demand to annul the November 2017 elections can be ongoing, since the entire electoral process involving JOH is tainted by fraud from its very beginnings.
This scenario can only be imagined if it is based on a very broad alliance that would range from the most radical sectors of the LIBRE party and other radical leftist political sectors, all the way across the political spectrum to the Liberal Party headed by Luis Zelaya, and encompassing those who made up the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship and the sectors of the population that today are part of the Convergence against Continuism, a space where the most relevant initiatives of diverse social and citizens’ sectors converge.
How can we get there?
Attaining this scenario requires those working together to make it possible realizing that, outside the current turbo-charged mobilization, grassroots social, and community-based organization in Honduras is still very weak. It requires many social organizations leaving their compounds and looking beyond their own specific agendas. It will mean taking into account all types of diversity, overcoming dispersion and directing everyone’s efforts to getting the elections annulled.
This scenario requires both street-level strategies and international alliances. Considering that Honduras continues to be a laboratory for coups and far-right governments, and that Juan Orlando Hernández has done enough to be accused of crimes against humanity. we must work until we have seen to it that he is internationally identified as a danger to democracy, not just for Honduras but for all of Latin America.
With such an alliance and truly broad-based citizens’ call to opposition, the projected dictatorship would be unable to succeed and the time would come when it would be obliged to negotiate a way out. This could result in a transitional government whose only task would be to call for new elections with a new Supreme Electoral Court and international oversight in which Hernández could not be a candidate due to the illegality of his reelection. The government borne of these new elections could organize a national consultation through which the population, exercising its sovereignty, would decide whether or not to call for a national constitutional assembly to write a new Constitution redefining our country’s democratic institutionality.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.