Angel Salgado lay brain-dead at the public teaching hospital the day I arrived in Tegucigalpa. On the eve of the November 29 elections, which the Honduran (and world) press later hailed as peaceful and fair, the army shot him in the head for accidentally passing one of the many military checkpoints set up around the city.
On December 2 Angel died, joining scores of other victims of the Honduran coup regime. That same day, the Honduran Congress–emboldened by its public relations victory in the elections–voted against reinstating the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted from office on June 28 after serving for three and a half years. The vote confirmed Latin America’s first successful twenty-first-century coup, and crowned the failure of US diplomacy to restore constitutional order in the impoverished Central American nation.
Honduran National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo won handily November 29 over the runner-up from the badly divided Liberal Party. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela immediately recognized Lobo as the elected president, hailing the elections as “a significant step in Honduras’ return to the democratic and constitutional order after the 28 June coup.” The country’s coup-controlled press trumpeted the vote as proof that democracy was alive and well in Honduras. The international press endorsed the “generally peaceful” elections, with the New York Times calling them “clean and fair.”
The Honduran elections were far from free, fair or peaceful. The coup regime rejected all diplomatic attempts to restore the nation’s democracy before holding elections, keeping the constitutional president trapped behind barricades in the Brazilian Embassy. It then pretended that the elections themselves constituted a return to democratic order.
The coup’s dictatorial decrees restricting freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of movement held the nation in a virtual state of siege in the weeks prior to the elections. Over forty registered candidates resigned in protest. Members of the resistance movement were harassed, beaten and detained. In San Pedro Sula, an election-day march was brutally repressed.
I arrived to monitor the elections and continue the work I had begun with the International Women’s Human Rights delegation in August. The delegation documented assassinations, rapes, beatings and arbitrary detentions over the months that followed the June 28 military coup d’état, working closely with the Honduran coalition Feminists in Resistance.
The day before the elections, the feminists I talked to were on edge. The coup regime had called out a security force of 30,000 to “maintain order” on election day. To avoid more bloody confrontations, the National Front Against the Coup D’état urged its members to stay inside during the elections and to uphold a nationwide elections boycott.
‘Impartial Observers’ and Confabulated Turnout Figures
The day of the elections, the streets of Tegucigalpa were empty as we drove from one polling station to another. At most voting centers, we saw only three or four voters. The turnout was notably higher in wealthy neighborhoods, while poor neighborhoods reported only some 30 percent turnout by the end of the day.
For the coup regime, legitimacy hinged on the turnout, as the polling became a test of the strength of the resistance boycott. During his acceptance speech, Lobo boasted that the turnout granted legitimacy to the elections, with 61 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced this voting percentage the night of the elections. But the figure did not tally with its own vote count, which showed a 49.2 percent turnout–a considerable decrease from past elections. An elections official, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared for his life, told the independent video producer Real News that Saul Escobar, the head of the tribunal, had made up the statistic.
The elections observation organization Hagamos Democracia, which was contracted by the TSE to deliver early results, reported a 47.6 percent turnout. Rolando Bu of Hagamos Democracia attempted to explain the discrepancy in an interview: “We are working on the basis of the voter registration list we received of 4.6 million. I haven’t spoken with the magistrates [of the tribunal] yet, but it is likely that they are subtracting aspects such as migration.” The TSE had no mandate to alter the voter registration list during the counting process, much less offer false turnout rates.
The TSE voting percentage flew around the world on the wings of the mass media, despite the fact that it was an invention. At last count, official TSE data show 49 percent turnout, with 91.4 percent of the vote counted. Resistance leaders note that the high number of blank and nullified ballots includes the votes of many people who were coerced into voting and who purposely destroyed their ballots; when these are subtracted, the effective turnout hovers around 42 percent.
In another attempt to validate the elections, the TSE brought in hundreds of international observers. Having decided to recognize the elections despite its previous insistence on a return to democracy first, the US government sent more than 100 observers from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both arms of the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The presence of US government observers was part of a carefully scripted effort to whitewash the coup by presenting credible elections. The more circumspect NDI noted that its delegation could not officially observe since it did not carry out critical observation of the pre-electoral phase; but its delegates wore the beige observer vests that identified both national and international observers. The NED, which has been widely criticized for financing non-governmental organizations that seek to undermine left-wing governments, including groups involved in the failed Venezuelan coup in 2002 and the kidnapping of Haiti’s Aristide in 2004, financed part of the official observation effort. Along with NED observers, the Honduran regime paid for the participation of individuals from fundamentalist religious groups and right-wing organizations and parties to round out the charade.
On election night, I witnessed firsthand the lack of impartiality of these observers. After I gave a television interview in the Marriott Hotel outside the electoral tribunal offices, a group of more than fifty observers began shouting angrily at me, calling me a “liar” and a “Zelaya supporter” and demanding that I be thrown out of the country for questioning the fairness of the elections. A small riot ensued, as the growing crowd pressed around me, interrupting questions from the press and chanting “Democracy,” “Chavista” and “Kick her out!” When I said I was worried about my safety, a tribunal security guard escorted me from the scene.
Honduras now faces a deeper political crisis than it did before the elections. The resistance movement has vowed not to recognize the Lobo government and has announced that it is moving on to create a broad national front to demand a return to the rule of law, the punishment of human rights violators and constitutional reforms.
Grassroots organization of farmers, feminists, union members and students has dramatically increased in the months of military occupation. Building on this will be a challenge, but the movement understands that it’s in for the long haul.
On December 8, the South American trade organization Mercosur announced its “total rejection” of the Honduran elections, stating that they were “carried out in an atmosphere of unconstitutionality, illegitimacy and illegality, dealing a blow to the democratic values of Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala have also refused to recognize the elections. Only Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia and Canada have joined the United States in congratulating Lobo.
The US State Department insists on the formation of a national unity government and a truth commission to repair the rifts in Honduras. But by recognizing the coup-run elections, it has hardened the regime’s position and made a mess of mediation efforts to end the coup. The Obama administration now has both the continuing Honduran crisis and a divided hemisphere on its hands, with no solution in sight.