I write this on the second day of the military curfew, exactly a week after Hondurans went to the polls for the national elections. No doubt you’ve heard or seen what is going on. I’ve not written about the troubles so far because I didn’t know how to express the confusion and tension, nor keep up with the rapid escalation into chaos in the last few days. One has to be careful of their views, especially commenting as a foreigner on a heated election in a country known for political instability.
Just over a week ago, I was told by a friend who works for a well-known development bank to be extra careful, a couple of days before voting day. She was worried. On the same day, an opinion column was published in New York Times that had caught people’s attention, highlighting the current President Juan Orlando Hernández’s dubious record as president; how he got to power, and his intention to retain it. She recommended I stocked up on supplies, had plenty of cash, and I kept a low profile.
Very valuable advice, duely followed.
The back story to these elections is quite something. Picture a telenovela or Netflix series, yet it meddling with real people’s lives. A type of Gabriel García Marquez magic realism exists in Honduras, yet it is even more absurd. It was always going to be heated with Juán Orlando Hernández running for reelection. The act in itself was against the consitution, and a case of deja vú after the former president Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power eight years for trying the exact same thing. Juan Orlando played his part in the coup, funnily enough.
His four years in power have been eventful. He got the economy moving, creating millions of jobs, and also helped bring down some of the drug empires (which his own brother Tony Hernández now seems embroiled in) and investing in the prison system, which was long overdue.
However, there are also controversy stacked against him. Most notable is his role in the mess with IHSS (Honduran Social Security), where he used funds from the public entity for his election campaign back in 2013. During the scandal, a congress woman named Lena Gutierrez working under Juan Orlando, was arrested along with her father and two brothers for allegedly embezzling the state by selling it poor quality medicine at inflated prices. Consequently, many died. The IHSS had already faced mass spending cuts, unable to afford basic medication to treat patients; the majority being the poor working class. This in itself brought tens of thousands to the streets in protest, carrying torches, and demanding Juan Orlando’s resignation. He never did, and the damage was unrepairable for millions.
There has also been an authortarian approach, suppressing protests and human rights groups voices, often with extreme violence through a military whom he is chief-in-commander. He also thwarted investigations into the Berta Caceres murder. He has bought people, moved congressman like chess pieces to help push forward his own agenda. Running for reelection has topped things off, especially due to his links with the entity processing the elections – Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE). He has had the media on his side, much of the business sector and, over the years, support from the US government, whose opposition to leftist politics in Latin America is very well documented.
Certainly an imbalance of power. Was it enough to win people over?
I knew there was tension in the air. During the World Cup playoff game against Australia in San Pedro Sula, two thirds of the stadium began chanting Fuera JOH, meaning “Get Out JOH” (initials of Juan Orlando Hernández). It was intense to say the least. While the Honduras team were not at their best, football became second place. Fans and journalists around me joked that even Juan Orlando’s wife might be joining in.
Despite all this, Juan Orlando has been expected to win. I had guessed it in the primary elections back in March. But I, and most definitely Juan Orlando, underestimated the anger, especially with the youth vote. Remember, Honduras is a young nation. They had taken to PAC (the anti corruption party), which was formed before the 2013 elections by the sports journalist Salvador Nasralla.
The more leftist contingent follow Libre, formed as a splinter group from the Liberal party, the equivalent of the Labour Party in the UK. It separated in 2009 after an internal disputes over Mel Zelaya’s removal from power. Members of his own party had a hand in it. Mel Zelaya is still recognised as the face of Libre, and the Nacional party often call into question his links with Nicolas Maduro (and Chavez before he died) in Venezuela, claiming he wants to create a communist state in Honduras. Various Nacionalistas have sent me sources to prove it. But in an age where propaganda flows freely from both sides (Brexit, the UK and US elections being other examples), no one knows quite what to believe. Nonetheless, you can see why the US have thrown its weight behind Juan Orlando, despite his own dubious human rights record.
PAC and Libre joined forces to form Alianza party, with Nasralla fronting the party. He is a populist and flamboyant, with many calling into question his sexuality, which is a big deal for many. However, he has hit a nerve by speaking candidly about corruption and the powers that be. He certainly speaks to the people, and he has a sense of humour to go with it. The one question he has struggled to answer convincingly, though, is how he would govern a country with Mel Zelaya. What would happen when important decisions had to be made? In a recent CNN interview, Nasralla was asked about the view that he was a puppet on a string for Mel Zelaya. He laughed it off. Not very convincingly to many viewers though.
Despite this, by joining forces has been the only way the parties can complete with Juan Orlando.
There is also Luis Zelaya, leader of the Liberal party, which is still running but with a lot less weight. He is more centralist, conventional and less extreme than his competitors. He’s probably the most rational too. But due to lack of funding in his campaign and trust in some of the Liberal congressmen, who have been labelled sell outs to the Nacional agenda, he was always going to finish third.