Honduras: When Does a Presidency Become a Dictatorship?

Honduras: When Does a Presidency Become a Dictatorship?

Facing widespread charges of a stolen election, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández began his second term Saturday with a brutal show of force against protesters. Can the opposition overcome increasingly deadly repression?

Protesters in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, during the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández’s second term as president, January 27 (Luis Méndez / Facebook)

Wilmer Paredes, gunned down from an unmarked SUV while riding a motorcycle home. Anselmo Villareal, caught by a police bullet while passing a protest on his bicycle. José Ramos, shot in the back, along with at least four others, while wearing a red opposition flag.

These are just a few of the three-dozen people killed by security forces in Honduras between the country’s disputed elections last November 26 and the official start, this past Saturday, of Juan Orlando Hernández’s second term as president. Protests first erupted when early projected results of the presidential election—with 57 percent of votes counted showing a five-point lead for opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla—were reversed after vote reporting resumed following a prolonged delay. With some 3.48 million votes counted, Honduras’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared victory for the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernández, with a reported 42.95 percent of the vote—a 1.5-point margin over Nasralla, candidate for the Alianza de Oposición contra la Dictadura (Alliance Opposing the Dictatorship) and Hernández’s main opponent in the race, who was credited with 41.42 percent.

Supporters of the Alianza refuse to recognize reported results, claiming fraud changed the outcome. Remarkably, they were joined in mid-December by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, who said it was impossible to certify the results, in light of a long list of “irregularities and deficiencies,” and called for new elections.

Honduran law does not require a majority (only a plurality) to carry an election, nor does it include provisions for a run-off. Hernández, carrying the torch of the ruling National Party, was declared winner in 2013 with only 36.89 percent of the vote. Nasralla, then heading a newly formed centrist Anti-Corruption Party, was credited with 13.43 percent, while Xiomara Castro (who is married to former president Manuel Zelaya), running for a new progressive party, Libre, ended with an official tally of 28.78 percent. Libre and the core of Nasralla’s Partido Anti-corrupción are the major partners in the 2017 Alianza.

Is there any plausible scenario in which Hernández could legitimately have carried a majority of the vote? It might be that the proportion of Hondurans opposed to the status quo stayed the same in 2017, around 42 percent of voters, while the incumbent president gained ground over 2013. Those making this argument would credit him for reduction in violence. Hernández succeeded a president whose term saw growth in deadly violence leading to San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city, being labeled the “murder capital” of the world. With a history of encouraging militarization of civilian policing as head of Honduras’s Congress, Hernández has pursued security policies that led to reported reductions in murder rates. At the same time, human rights organizations note consistent police use of deadly force. Murders of environmental activists spiraled upward, the most visible being the assassination of Goldman Prize winner Berta Cacéres. Military officers are among those implicated in her death. Investigation has yet to lead to any prosecution.

Two other factors weigh against the argument that Hernández actually received greater support in 2017: charges of corruption, and a priori rejection of his reelection as unconstitutional. Both fueled adamant resistance in the lead-up to his election, resistance that took the form of mass protests and violence across Honduras in the aftermath of the disputed result.

In a corruption scandal that enmeshes Hernández’s government, at least $200 million, and possibly as much as $350 million, was siphoned from the national Institute of Social Security (IHSS) to fictitious front companies that delivered no goods or services. Hernández claimed no knowledge of the stolen funds, which documents show were diverted to his 2013 campaign. Hondurans met that claim with widespread disbelief. Misappropriation of funds began with the head of the agency, appointed by the ruling party during the administration of Hernández’s predecessor Porfirio Lobo. Hernández headed the Honduran Congress at the time; Lena Gutiérrez Arévalo, the second in command in Congress and a prominent member of his party, was also implicated.

In response, tens of thousands of Hondurans calling themselves indignados, “the outraged,” engaged in torchlight marches against corruption and impunity, calling for the immediate resignation of Hernández and the formation of an international anti-corruption mission. Their model was the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity that helped spur the resignation of a corrupt president in Guatemala.

That doesn’t seem like a context for increased popularity for the sitting president. His claims of ignorance about tainted funds used in his campaign seem unbelievable, given his history of tight control of his party, Congress, and now the executive branch.

Which brings us to the second factor that makes an increase in Hernández’s popularity dubious. As he took the oath of office for a second time on Saturday (January 27), he was the first president reelected since the 1982 Honduran constitution was adopted with an explicit ban on reelection. The constitution also banned any alteration of these provisions by normal mechanisms of amendment.

This constitutional provision against presidential reelection, in fact, was the pretext used to justify the 2009 coup against President José Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya had called for a new convention to replace the 1982 constitution, which former Costa Rican president Oscar Arías famously called the worst in the world. A constitutional convention would have enabled changes such as adding procedures to recall politicians, establishing electoral districts for congress to increase accountability to the electorate, and codifying protections of human rights, indigenous, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. Opponents of the call for a vote on holding a constitutional convention promoted the claim that what Zelaya really wanted was to change the unalterable ban on reelection. Instead, six months before the elections were due to take place, he was captured at gunpoint by members of the military and sent into exile in Costa Rica. But the charge that he sought a constitutional convention in order to prolong his own presidency has proved durable—so much so that it is often repeated as shorthand for the causes of the 2009 coup in articles about Honduran politics.

A ban on reelection wasn’t a long-established tradition of Honduran politics. It wasn’t even unquestioned in 1982. In 1985, a group of congress members—including the politician who would head the de facto regime installed after the 2009 coup—tried to initiate changes to allow the first president elected under the new constitution to remain in office a second term.

The fervor of public attacks on Zelaya in 2008 and 2009, which portrayed modest social-democratic positions as “twenty-first century socialism,” arguably transformed the ban on reelection into a more widely shared symbol of commitment to centrist democracy. That did not stop members of Hernández’s right-of-center political party, who brought a case to the Honduran Supreme Court to nullify the ban on reelection. The court is widely seen as dominated by the Hernández government. A number of justices were appointed in 2012 after Congress, then headed by Hernández, removed predecessors whose rulings he found unpalatable. The court issued an opinion removing the reelection ban. While that decision opened the door to reelection, the Honduran congress failed to pass new legislation defining conditions for reelection. Nonetheless, the sitting president announced he would seek immediate consecutive reelection, even without a legislative framework in place.

Popular response in Honduras was negative. The emergent opposition coalition, bound by participation in anti-corruption demonstrations, adopted the phrase “against dictatorship” in its name to underline resistance to continuismo, the doctrine of continuity in office through reelection. Polling data reported by the Economist shows reelection rejected by two-thirds of Hondurans. If November’s reported election results are to be believed, the current president must have received support from voters who oppose reelection.

That’s not the only basis for questioning the reported results. The late reversal of the trend of voting was highly unlikely, according to two independent statistical analyses. Public confidence in the electoral agency is the lowest in the hemisphere. Software, hardware, and physical security are all of questionable reliability. Reports of old-fashioned manual ballot box stuffing joined fears of digital fraud.

Hernández refused to consider the OAS proposal for new elections. He hardened repression of protest, having proxies paint demonstrators as gang members. His allies cry interference in internal affairs, rhetoric honed after the 2009 coup, to reject international concerns. It doesn’t hurt that they have the support of the Trump administration, which is set to provide Honduras with some $68 million in aid this year. The United States continues to train Honduran security forces, despite their long track record of extrajudicial killings and torture.

As Hernández took the oath of office, all broadcast media were required to carry the ceremony and his speech. To ensure that protests did not sully the event, police cordoned off the perimeter, stationing artillery at strategic points. In the days before, police raided houses of activists, arresting many on pretexts including property destruction. At the same time, his loyalists in congress passed a law gutting MACCIH, the OAS anti-corruption unit in Honduras, and effectively blocking the investigation into the massive corruption allegations swirling around Hernández’s government. The opposition called for a week of resistance, but as the official response continues to feature deadly violence, their focus will necessarily shift to the legislature, where the main party making up the Alliance will seek to oppose the agenda of the authoritarian government and its corruption. Much will rest on their success, in a country where new ways to practice corruption are still being invented.


Rosemary Joyce is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and an archeologist who has conducted fieldwork in Honduras since 1977.


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