In 2011, Juan Orlando Hernández, a conservative Honduran lawmaker who was serving as the president of Congress, sat for a televised interview. Two years earlier, Hernández’s National Party had pushed out then-President Manuel Zelaya ostensibly for proposing a referendum that would allow for presidential reelection. When asked on air whether Zelaya’s removal was illegitimate or constitutionally sanctioned, Hernández replied, “It was both.”
He could say the same now. It’s been over a week since presidential polls closed elections on November 26, and, amid allegations of electoral fraud, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has yet to declare a winner. But Hernández—now president—seems set to officially win a second term, after he reversed what preliminary results suggested was an insurmountable lead by his main opponent, Salvador Nasralla, a businessman and former sportscaster. With the presidential votes now tallied, Hernández appears to have won by a margin of 52,000 votes, or by 1.6 percent of the popular vote. Nasralla, who is running under a broad anti-corruption platform, rejected the TSE’s results, and has called for a recount of over 5,000 polling stations. “I am the president-elect of Honduras, the president chosen by the people,” he said.
Nasralla has reason to doubt the results. By the morning of Monday, November 27, initial results showed Nasralla ahead of Hernández by five points, a lead so convincing that Marco Ramiros Lobo, an election official with the TSE, informed reporters later in the day that, with 70 percent of ballots counted, Nasralla’s lead was “irreversible.” By Tuesday evening, however, the TSE’s website showed that Nasralla’s lead had slipped to 3.3 percent, according to the BBC, and on Wednesday afternoon Hernández somehow edged ahead of Nasralla by less than one percentage point. Honduran voters, having witnessed Nasralla’s victory evaporate in real time, mobilized in Tegucigalpa to protest what they say was a rigged election. “They are taking us for fools, and they want to steal our victory,” Nasralla declared last week during a press conference.
For the past week, Nasralla’s supporters have taken to the streets, clashing with the country’s national police. Estimates suggest that at least 11 people have died and dozens have been injured in the violence. In response, the Honduran state declared a state of emergency and issued a 10-day nationwide curfew from 6 pm to 6 am. Locked in their homes, demonstrators continue to channel their frustrations through cacerolazos, a common form of loud, pot-banging protests in Latin America. Trumpets, loud clanking noises, fireworks, and more can be heard every night in Tegucigalpa and other cities.
On the eve of the presidential elections, The Economist dropped a report in which it described “Plan B,” an attempt at local vote rigging by the National Party. Leaked recordings from a training session documented a government employee urging poll workers to fill out extra ballots for Hernández and add additional marks to nullify those cast for Nasralla.
This wasn’t necessarily surprising for Hondurans—Hernández’s electoral victory in 2013 was marred by accusations of intimidation, fraud, and vote buying. “Those were strategies that [the National Party] used in 2013,” Karen Spring, an activist and coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, said of Plan B. “The opposition alliance knew that they needed to be extra careful at the voting tables and making sure that they could certify the vote tally sheets.” She said local congressional and municipal races (both were included in the November 26 elections) should also be investigated.
But the Honduran government’s corruption is not limited to election fraud. Recent court testimonies allege ties between the government and criminal groups. During one trial, a former Mexican drug dealer said he had met with Julián Pacheco, the Honduran minister of security and a 1979 graduate of the School of the Americas, to discuss plans to ship cocaine from Colombia to the United States via Honduras. Earlier this year, in another case, the leader of one of country’s largest drug cartels identified Tony Hernandez, a Honduran congressman and the president’s brother, as one of the group’s senior government allies.
Juan Orlando Hernández and the National Party have been consolidating power in Honduras for years. A scandal that broke in 2015 accused the National Party of embezzling millions of dollars belonging to the country’s social-security funds from 2010 to 2014 and funneling them into party coffers. As president of Congress, Hernández also encouraged the legislature to remove four Supreme Court judges, who were replaced with party loyalists. A year later, the court overruled the country’s term-limit clause, allowing Hernández to run for reelection. After helping to depose his predecessor with bogus claims Zelaya was seeking a second term, Hernández is now the first Honduran president to do so.
Through this all, the Hernández administration has been the United States’ chief ally in Central America. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff and former head of the US Southern Command, referred to Hernández as a “great guy” and a “good friend” earlier this year. Since 2009, the State Department has helped strengthen the National Party’s hold on the country. It helped legitimize the coup d’état, spending millions on a program to encourage “alliances” between Honduran community groups and local police and security forces. As The Intercept recently reported, the United States has also provided post-coup Honduras with almost $114 million in security-related funds.
Before the election, the mainstream narrative coming from Honduras was that Hernández enjoyed widespread popularity for reducing violence in Honduras, which was partly true: The country’s per capita murder rate has been cut nearly in half since 2013. But in many high-crime areas, police repression has replaced the gang violence. “We live under constant fear and total uncertainty,” a high-school senior from the coastal city of La Ceiba told me over the phone recently. He requested anonymity out of fear for his family’s safety.
Targeted political killings have also continued. The country remains the deadliest in the world for environmental activists: According to Global Witness, 120 have been killed since 2010. Berta Caceres, the founder of COPINH—a prominent activist organization in Central America—and a Goldman Prize winner, was slain in her home in 2016 for her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam by a Honduran hydroelectric company known Desarrollos Energéticos SA, or DESA. A recent report compiled by GAIPE, an international group of human-rights lawyers, said that evidence collected by the group suggested the participation of “numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination” of Caceres. Those behind the assassination, they said, may never face justice.
Not that the Trump administration seems to care. On November 28, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a document certifying that Honduras has been combating corruption and upholding human rights in order for the country to receive millions of dollars in US foreign aid. A day later, the State Department urged “calm and patience” in Honduras until the election results were fully tabulated.
In a December 4 statement, the US embassy in Honduras announced that it was “pleased” election authorities had completed a small vote recount “in a way that maximizes citizen participation and transparency,” while, at the same time, vaguely encouraging efforts “to increase the transparency of the process.”
Meanwhile, the opposition’s demand for a recount of votes from over 5,000 polling stations has been backed by the OAS, the EU, and other international groups. “It’s clear to many that the electoral tribunal has lost credibility,” said Adriana Beltrán, director for Citizen Security at the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based think tank.
But even if there were a recount in Nasralla’s favor, it’s difficult to know how different a president he would be. Nasralla is a former Pepsi executive, who has been labeled a conservative, centrist, and left-winger. Despite being backed by Manuel Zelaya and the left-leaning Libre Party, Nasralla’s Opposition Alliance is a broad coalition that encompasses remnants of a centrist anti-corruption party as well as social democrats.
Nasralla’s popularity is indicative of a recent trend in Latin American politics, where outsiders and political neophytes have gained support for railing against a corrupt establishment. But the reformers haven’t always been successful. One only needs to look at neighboring Guatemala, where comedian turned president Jimmy Morales ran under the slogan, “Not corrupt, nor a thief.” Morales appears—like his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina—to be both corrupt and a thief.
“I don’t think Nasralla is some savior liberator,” a Honduran friend recently told me. “He is part of the same structure.” Activist Karen Spring voiced a similar concern, arguing that the anti-corruption wave is “part of this analysis that you can just weed out bad apples, instead of looking at corruption as something that naturally is inherent in neoliberalism.” Even so, the government plan drafted by the Opposition Alliance, which Nasralla endorsed, provides hope. It pledges to reverse the privatization of public services in Honduras, support universal access to education, and provide free transportation for low-income students. Nasralla has also promised to cancel widely unpopular highway tolls. At the very least, most Hondurans appear to believe this is more promising than another term under Hernández.
Earlier this week Honduran police, including US-trained security forces, refused to take orders from the government and enforce its curfew. It’s a stunning rebuke, and could prove to be a crucial turning point for Honduran democracy. “We want peace, and we will not follow government orders—we’re tired of this,” a police spokesman said on December 4. Nasralla has taken the move as a small victory. “I congratulate the Cobras [Honduran riot police] and Police for not allowing the repression and murder ordered by the dictator,” he wrote on Facebook.
That may prove to have been the tipping point in forcing a recount. The head of Honduras’s TSE, David Matamoros Batson, announced on Tuesday that the electoral body will extend its deadline for the opposition to appeal the election results to Friday, December 8. “We want there to be no doubt of what is reviewed and how it is reviewed,” he said. But on Tuesday afternoon Nasralla tweeted a request for the TSE to conduct a complete recount or call a second-round vote with Hernández. Until a deal is struck, the opposition says it will not turn in its copies of vote tally sheets to be compared with fraudulent sheets it claims the TSE holds.
For now, it seems Hondurans will have to continue to wait. In a tweet, the Honduras Solidarity Network denounced the TSE’s continued delays—they are still tallying congressional and municipal votes—as an effort “to exhaust [and] reduce [international] attention on electoral fraud.” Police, on their part, have returned to their posts but allowed protesters to defy the government-imposed curfew on Tuesday night. Pot-banging, instrument-playing, and chants of “Fuera JOH” (Hernández’s initials) could be heard as a new round of cacerolazos filled Honduran streets.