Blood and ballots in Honduras

Rio Blanco residents hold a sign near their blockade of the access road to a proposed dam project. (Photo by Madeline McClure)

A fraudulent election is another disturbing sign that U.S.-supported impunity is back in Central America.

Deep in the mountainous western region of Honduras there’s a barrier between life and death. It is made of tilted sticks and an elaborate web of wire, and for the past eight months it’s been the only thing protecting this community.

This blockade sits across the only access road leading to the site of a proposed mega-hydroelectric dam. If the dam is built, the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lenca community in Rio Blanco will be underwater.

“Lots of political parties have come here, made promises, and broken them,” explained community member Francisco Javier Sanchez to our group of twenty international election observers.

On the 18th of November, six days before the elections in Honduras, I arrived as an election observer with the Honduran Solidarity Network (HSN) to find a country hopeful for democracy but crippled by violence and political impunity.

Although not rich by capitalist standards, it was obvious this community possessed a wealth of culture and knowledge beyond the universities and cities we came from to monitor the election.

Since a U.S- backed coup d’etat overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, Honduras has become the murder capital of the world. Human rights abuses in the country are approaching the level of crimes against humanity. The right-wing National Party, while overseeing a deepening foreign debt, has opened of the country’s natural resources to foreign and domestic investment.

Just one example is the package of 41 hydroelectric dam projects approved by the Honduran Congress, including the endeavor presently seething at Rio Blanco’s periphery.

But the repressive post-coup atmosphere has also created what Hondurans refer to as ‘an awakening.’ The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a unifying coalition of diverse grassroots movements, was born shortly after the coup.

In 2011, the FNRP organized the Libre Party, an electoral wing whose presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya (wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya) vowed to reinstate democracy and scale back the internal role of the military in Honduras.

The National Party campaigns for their candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, outside of a polling place on election day. (Photo by Madeline McClure)The National Party campaigns for their candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, outside of a polling place on election day. (Photo by Madeline McClure)

In the run up to the elections on November 24th, Castro was running neck-and-neck with National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez. But the initial vote count did not reflect her popularity.

Shortly after the polls closed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced a conclusive victory for Hernandez. Within twenty-four hours, the United States endorsed the results, further distancing the possibility of a meaningful recount.

“U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske spoke on behalf of international observers when she congratulated Honduras on a free and fair election,” explains HSN observer Tanya Kerssen. “But this was before observers were even allowed to make such statements.”

Look past U.S. secretarial congrats to Honduras, and you will find reports detailing concrete evidence of fraud and widespread human rights abuses.

This is not limited to the HSN report. The National Lawyers Guild and the Honduran Equality Delegation documented discrepancies in voter tallies, instances of vote buying, and disruptive violence. There were other reports that up to 30% of voters on the rolls were either deceased or had left the country years ago.

On the afternoon of elections, I met with three Libre representatives in a dim kitchen in Copan, a region bordering Guatemala that’s in the grips of narco-trafficking. They’d been forced to leave the polling places they were assigned to. They described threats from masked men wielding AK-47s and a saw.

But without them, those polling places submitted their vote tallies like any other, and like many, Hernandez won by a landslide.

International observer Heather Wolford interviews Hondurans after they've cast their ballot. (Photo by Madeline McClure)International observer Heather Wolford interviews Hondurans after they’ve cast their ballot. (Photo by Madeline McClure)

Some call Honduras the forgotten country, but those who have not forgotten know that to talk about Honduras today you have to talk as well about the United States.

For our government, it has served as the heart of Central America, one of blue blood transfused through the elaborate network of free trade and military command.

Buy Dole or Chiquita bananas from the grocery store and they’re likely to come from Honduras, where farmers work for $8.50 per eleven-hour day, $11.00 if they’re lucky enough to be in a union.

Clothing at stores like Costco and JC Penny can likewise be traced back to Honduras, whose maquiladoras, largely populated by young women, produce the world’s 5th largest volume of clothing exports.

Meanwhile, corporate development has taken a heavy toll on the integrity of the country. As land and resources are commodified, Hondurans have been dispossessed and human rights have been compromised.

The response to Rio Blanco’s resistance, for example, has been brutal. One local community member, Tomas Garcia, was fatally shot by Honduran armed forces during a non-violent march against the hydroelectric dam. His 17 year-old son, Allan Garcia, was also shot several times in the back.

Francisco Sanchez says he doesn’t leave his home without accompaniment anymore. Not since he started receiving death threats from the dam company. Especially not since the military, who arrived as security for the company, entered his home and struck his teenage son in the face with the butt of a rifle.

Since 2012, the U.S. has increased its military funding and presence in Honduras as part of the war on drugs. Criticism has arisen given the fact that, since the coup, Honduras has seen the reemergence of military death squads.

A poster from the office of a banana pickers union condemns dislmal working conditions. (Photo by Madeline McClure)
A poster from the office of a banana pickers union condemns dislmal working conditions. (Photo by Madeline McClure)

There’s a history here. During the Dirty Wars of the latter 20th century, the United States used Honduras as a counter-insurgency base for its notorious operations. Today it trains Honduran military commanders at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, once called the School of Americas — an institution infamous for training Central American death squads in using war tactics against their own people.

The result of U.S. intervention is even apparent in Rio Blanco: the Lieutenant in charge of the unit responsible for Garcia’s death and the injury of his son had been trained in Special Operations by a U.S. military instructor.

All over the world, the marriage of international development with domestic despotism has become a familiar narrative. That couldn’t be truer in Honduras.

As a government’s legitimacy erodes, it must increasingly rely on force — this perpetuates a cycle of repression and erosion of public trust that should, in a functioning democracy, send the governing party out the door,” explains Kerssen.

But for Honduras, U.S. support for the National Party presents a complex challenge to those fighting for fundamental change.

“This [change] hasn’t happened in Honduras in large part because of U.S. influence, which props up its favored rulers by granting them external legitimacy and ‘security’ aid, thus allowing them to stay in power in the face of broad-based popular discontent,” Kerssen continues.

While the United States uses allegedly neutral observer organizations like the Carter Center and Organization of American States to whitewash their elections, thousands of Hondurans have taken to the streets in protest against fraud and impunity.

Under Juan Orlando Hernandez, the 2009 coup lives on. This corrupt government will no doubt place corporate rights over those of its people, with violence and impunity, and in no small part thanks to U.S. political allegiances and an extravagantly funded military.

Meanwhile, international organizations such as the Honduran Solidarity Network will continue to support the Honduran people in their fight toward a just political system.

“For now, we are trying to prepare ourselves,” Sanchez told us before the elections. “Whoever wins, we are continuing in our struggle.”