Protesting a stolen election in Honduras

December 3, 2013

The National Party government that took over from the coupmakers who overthrew President Manuel Zelaya four years ago used vote fraud and violence to engineer a victory in the presidential election over the LIBRE Party candidate Xiomara Castro, Zelaya's wife, according to supporters of the LIBRE challenge. The elections and the allegations of corruption are the latest chapter in Honduran politics since the U.S.-backed coup against Zelaya.

Sarah Lynne and Jesse Chapman report from Honduras on the elections and the aftermath, as the left discusses the way forward.

"WE WILL keep fighting! We will stay with the struggle until we win! If it's our turn to die, then we will die! Homeland or death!"

These were the words Elizabeth shouted during a large march against corruption in Honduras following national elections widely seen as fraudulent. On her shirt, Elizabeth wore the photo of her son, a journalist for Channel 36 news in Honduras, who was killed only six months ago for his politics and journalism.

She was one of thousands who turned out to march against corruption and fraud on December 1 in the streets of the capital of Tegucigalpa. Anger and determination resonated from her as she spoke of hope, loss and struggle--the very essence of what it means to be Honduran today.

Honduras suffers from incredibly high rates of violence and drug trafficking, and is home to the murder capital of the world, San Pedro Sula. Activists, organizers and journalists, like Elizabeth's son, are targeted and killed around the country by military and police, as well as paramilitary forces that work for the country's ruling oligarchy. Precious resources such as water, land and minerals are sold to international corporations, further enriching the upper class and impoverishing the rest.

On the march against election fraud and corruption in Tegucigalpa
On the march against election fraud and corruption in Tegucigalpa (Sarah Blaskey)
With 50 percent of the Honduran population living under the poverty line and a 27.9 percent unemployment rate, the standard of living in Honduras is in decline, despite regular economic growth.

For the past two years, Hondurans who want to see change have organized themselves behind the Liberty and Refoundation Party, more commonly known as LIBRE (Free), founded amid the post-coup struggle in Honduras following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.

With massive popular support, LIBRE quickly became a viable alternative to the two corporate parties, the Liberal and National Parties, which have traditionally shared power in Honduras. Polls showed LIBRE with a chance to win the elections.

But LIBRE didn't win--officially. Instead, the National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández got a plurality of votes, according to the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the official governmental body that oversaw the elections.

Though the details are too many to list completely, it's clear that fraud was the only reason the National Party won the presidency over the LIBRE candidate--well-planned, systematic fraud.

There were many irregularities on election day cited by national and international observers, including dead people who showed up to vote, living people who were listed as dead and could not vote, ballots that were already marked in favor of the National Party, ballots that were never picked up to be counted after polls closed, and votes that were bought with money or medicine.

There was clearly electronic fraud as well. Final vote counts changed drastically between unofficial tallies in the polling stations, and results published electronically by the TSE.

Violence and intimidation also plagued the election process. In total, more than 20 LIBRE party supporters, activists and candidates have been killed since the party's formation two years ago. Military personnel, paramilitaries and gang members were present at polling stations around the country, frisking, detaining and intimidating voters and election observers alike.

Despite detailed reports and criticism from groups like the Honduras Solidarity Network and the National Lawyers Guild, the U.S. embassy in Honduras upheld the elections as "transparent." The European Union and several countries in Latin America, including Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica, followed suit.

But the feeling of indignation and rage that underlay the anti-fraud demonstration in Tegucigalpa on Sunday can't be totally understood through the lens of protesting lost elections. The thousands who took to the streets and the millions who support them were there for more than a political party. They were there to fight for change. And they won't stop until they get it.


A History of the Left in Honduras

The Honduran left is organized and strong, posing a threat to the status quo in Honduras and with the potential to be a force for change in the region as a whole.

Historically, the development of the left in Honduras has been connected to the way capitalism developed in the region.

As the original "banana republic," Honduras has been under the thumb of U.S. corporations since the early years of the 20th century. Though there have been attempts at land redistribution designed to give the Honduran people a way to grow food and support themselves, these attempts have been continuously undermined by the Honduran oligarchy and foreign investors.

The Honduran military, backed by the U.S. military, has also played an important role in maintaining the interests of international capital in the region. A major U.S. military presence in Honduras began in the 1980s during Washington's efforts to contain the spread of communism in Latin America, a region deemed particularly vulnerable to the ideas of shared wealth and democratic institutions.

Honduras was an important launching pad for the U.S. military intervention in the war against the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Many of those military bases built in the 1980s are still active today.

Today, Honduras is the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid in Central America. In 2011, the Associated Press reported that Honduras received $1.3 billion in military exports from the U.S., almost half of total arms exports in the Western Hemisphere for that year. Instead of anti-communist rhetoric, the increase in militarization in Honduras today happens under the aegis of the "war on drugs."

Though the militarization has done nothing to quell drug trafficking through Honduras, which continues to grow annually, it has contributed to the strength and training of state forces, whose primary role seems to be containing social movements and securing areas of economic importance for the Honduran oligarchy and U.S. interests.


The Military Coup Against Zelaya

In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected president as the candidate of the Liberal Party. Under his administration, Honduras signed on to CAFTA--the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which liberalized trade throughout the region, tearing down trade barriers and opening the doors to an influx of U.S.-based corporate interests.

However, under popular pressure from unions and campesino movements in particular, Zelaya began to shift and implement reforms in 2008, including raising the minimum wage and supporting a land redistribution program. He also called a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, angering the ruling oligarchy.

This assembly never came to be, however, because on June 28, 2009--the day of a nonbinding national referendum on changing the constitution--Zelaya was removed from the presidential palace at gunpoint and replaced by a military dictatorship. Since his ouster, Zelaya and his wife have become beacons for the Honduran left to rally around.

Six months after the coup, current President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo of the National Party came to power through fraudulent elections. He and his administration are considered by the left to be a continuation of the coup-government, only with the false legitimacy of an election.

The Honduran military coup, the most recent in Latin America, took place with the tacit approval of the U.S. government and military. The plane that took Zelaya to Costa Rica during his removal stopped at Palmerola Air Base--a base that was originally a U.S. military base and still hosts some members of the U.S. military today.

Although the U.S. did nominally withdraw support for the Honduran government after the coup, it was reinstated immediately after the election of Lobo. The U.S. government continues to support the Lobo administration, claiming that it is taking steps toward democracy.

Since the coup, any idea of "democracy" existing in Honduras has been a farce. Elections are rigged, and popular movements are met with severe repression and violence. More than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses have been filed against the police and military since the time of the coup, and activists say that more than 200 people involved in the struggle have been killed nationwide.

While the coup and violent aftermath did secure the interests of the Honduran ruling elite, it also bred a new generation of militant activists whose stated purpose is to tear down the dictatorship that currently rules Honduras.


The FNRP and the LIBRE Party

Masses of people took to the streets after the coup in protest of corruption and in support of Zelaya's return. Out of that spontaneous resistance arose the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), a coalition of popular organizations, ranging from militant socialists, to liberals, to newly politicized individuals with no specific political affiliations.

The FNRP has been instrumental in uniting movements across the country. In the four years following the coup, individuals involved in the FNRP debated the best ways to combat corruption at both the national and international level. The resistance included marches, strikes and land occupations.

Two years ago, the FNRP decided to participate in the 2013 elections with Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the ousted president, as the presidential candidate. LIBRE was born.

With its populist messages, LIBRE captured the imagination of the majority of Hondurans, especially the rural poor. To the Honduran people who have suffered at the hands of a corrupt oligarchy for decades, LIBRE meant a chance for change and progress--opposition to corruption, popular grassroots democracy, an end to the military state and a revision of the constitution that currently favors the ruling elite. Some even saw the LIBRE party as a step toward a socialist government along the same tradition of Hugo Chávez's vision for Venezuela.

While it is hard to know now what LIBRE would have done had it been able to take power in this election, it's safe to say that the most enthusiastic predictions were overstated. However, had the party won the presidency, this clearly would have opened up a space for the Honduran left to flourish and push for positive reforms.

It is hard to describe in words the hope we witnessed resonating through Honduras in the months and days leading up to the elections. Everyone was talking about LIBRE and the promising future it would bring. Houses flew flags, and many people proudly wore LIBRE T-shirts and hats.

The candidate for vice mayor of Tegucigalpa, Enrique Sandoval, summed up the feeling when he said:

We simply see it [LIBRE] as hope. Because we are broken and despondent. Broken in poverty--in lack of opportunity for the poor. There are no jobs. There is insecurity. Prices go up. We see that the rich get richer every day. The poor become more poor every day--and now, [the poor] 76 percent of our population simply has hope, and that hope is LIBRE.

The electoral fraud caught people off guard. LIBRE supporters expected to win not only the presidency, but also a strong showing in the National Congress. Neither of those expectations came to pass. Many in the streets are calling this fraud the second part of the coup--or coup version 2.0.

While LIBRE did win seats in the legislature, it isn't a majority--meaning that those LIBRE candidates who were elected will have to work in coalition with other parties, including the center-right Liberal Party, to have any hope of passing measures through Congress. More than likely, this will cause those LIBRE members to water down their demands.

In the days that followed the fraudulent election, there was widespread sentiment among Hondurans to go out into the streets and fight for democracy. Groups of students from the National Autonomous University in Tegucigalpa held small protests every day for the first week, once clashing with police after they were attacked with tear gas and batons.

But the students were all but alone in the streets, as most supporters waited for a lead from the LIBRE party itself. They wanted--and expected--a call to action. But they were let down.

For the first week, top LIBRE officials called on the party's base to remain at home and wait for more information about fraud and the possibilities for legal redress. At a press conference the Monday after the elections, Zelaya told LIBRE supporters that the party would take to the streets "only if necessary." As people stayed at home, isolated from their comrades, a feeling of depression and failure seemed to creep through Honduras.

When LIBRE officials finally called people to the streets on December 1 to defend the vote, it was too late. Only around 3,000 or 4,000 showed up to the march--a contrast to the hundreds of thousands who voted for LIBRE and who protested the coup in 2009. The march was poorly organized. Unions and social movements were not called out. And there is no real plan for a popular movement against fraud to continue in weeks to come.

Although there are more student marches called for the next few days, as we enter December, it's likely that what little movement there has been will dwindle. Party officials will submit proof of fraud to the TSE this week and wait again for a response. They will demand a vote-by-vote recount, but that seems unlikely to ever occur without substantially more pressure.

People in the streets will return to their homes to celebrate the holidays and, for a while at least, it will seem that the Honduran right has won. But to conclude that would be to underestimate the strength and level of organization of the Honduran left.


Which Way Forward?

In the weeks and months to come, Hondurans will regroup and internalize the lessons of their most recent defeat.

It is possible that they will abandon electoral politics altogether, or that there will be a split in the FNRP between those in favor of electoral politics and those who are not. But it is clear from talking to anyone that the Honduran people will not wait four more years to try to topple Hernández as he continues to consolidate power. "Se va caer. Se va caer. La dictadura se va caer!" sing protesters at the various marches. (He's going to fall. He's going to fall. The dictator is going to fall.)

While the electoral loss and smaller popular response following the fraudulent vote was certainly a blow to the Honduran left, it will not cripple the movement over the long term. Honduran leftists viewed elections as a tactic in the broader struggle for change. This tactic failed in the sense that the party didn't win office, but it was successful in bringing new faces into the movement. Drawing on its deep historical roots and the fresh energy and newly formed alliances of the past few years, the Honduran resistance will continue.

But what form will this resistance take?

The powerful indigenous and campesino movements fighting land grabs across the country will continue with their land occupations and blockades, even in the face of what promises to be even more violent repression.

There are strong labor unions in Honduras, but their leadership changes with every new presidential administration, hamstringing their ability to organize against the government. Still, with enough of a push from the grassroots, it is possible that labor will be a factor in the resistance movement to come.

Pushed to a breaking point and frustrated that nonviolent struggle is not producing the change they desire, there are many, especially among young people, who are also starting to consider alternatives to the nonviolent resistance that has predominated since the coup. Because they are just whispers at this point, it is unclear what form these alternatives might take. A drawn-out guerrilla movement is possible in the years to come. But with the full force of the U.S. military on the side of the Honduran government, armed struggle does not seem like a viable option in Honduras.

There are a lot of questions that need answers before the movement goes forward. But that is all part of the political process. Every struggle has ebbs and flows, said LIBRE candidate and socialist Gilberto Rios during a post-election community meeting in Tegucigalpa. He believes that this is just the beginning of a period of successes for LIBRE supporters, as Juan Orlando takes the helm with virtually no popular support. As Rios said in a private interview:

Let us never forget that politics is the process of accumulation of power. There are moments in which we accumulate. There are moments in which we lose. But the LIBRE party has accumulated a lot of organic power. In my opinion, Juan Orlando cannot accumulate more strength. To the contrary, he is losing strength. So I think the stage of power is going to change correlatively in our favor this year.

It's anyone's guess when the next surge of struggle will break out in Honduras. The only sure thing is that it will happen, and soon.

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