TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Supporters of left-leaning presidential candidate Xiomara Castro are claiming fraud after Honduran authorities declared on December 12 that her conservative rival Juan Orlando Hernandez has won the presidency. The two candidates campaigned on starkly different visions of how to govern this Central American nation of 8.5 million people.
According to the Honduran electoral tribunal (TSE), Orlando Hernandez of the ruling National Party won the election, which was held in late November, with 37 percent of the vote to Castro’s 29 percent. The remainder of the vote was divided among a half dozen other candidates. Castro held a commanding lead in pre-election opinion polls and led by six points in exit polls conducted on the day of the vote.
Hundreds of supporters from LIBRE, Castro’s political party, responded to the news by holding a sit-in at the TSE headquarters. Pointing to evidence of fraud, Castro’s husband Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya said her supporters would not accept the results because the tribunal had failed to examine more than 3,600 precinct tallies.
Zelaya served as president of Honduras from 2006 to 2009 before being ousted from power in a military-backed coup. Considered by some as the “FDR of Honduras,” Zelaya angered his fellow elites (and Washington) by responding to the demands of progressive social movements and taking the country to the left during his presidency — increasing the minimum wage, moving toward land reform and expanding social programs in a country where 71 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Under Zelaya, Honduras joined ALBA, the alliance of progressive Latin American nations that includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba. At the time of the coup, Zelaya and his supporters were seeking public approval for convening a constituent assembly that would write a new constitution. He hoped to “refound” a country whose political system has traditionally been dominated by a handful of powerful families.
Zelaya returned from exile in 2011. He was barred from running in this year’s presidential election. Instead, Castro ran in his place and emerged as a powerful political figure in her own right. Her candidacy has come at a time when the suffering of Honduras’s poor majority has intensified.
Since 2009, the gains of the Zelaya years have been reversed. The poverty rate has increased by 13 percent and the extreme poverty rate by 26 percent, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Violent crime is off the charts. Small-scale farmers and fisherfolk have been plagued by land grabs that deny them access to farmland and coastlines. This leaves them unable to feed themselves and their families. I visited Honduras during the first week of November as part of a food sovereignty delegation organized by Grassroots International and met with social movement leaders and farmers there who reported constant threats to their lives.
That same feeling of menace was thick in the air in the weeks leading up to the November 24 election day. Five LIBRE activists were murdered two days before the election. Military checkpoints and police round-ups increased in scope and frequency, especially in poor communities and toward activist groups. Our international delegation was repeatedly stopped at military checkpoints; for example, in a three-hour ride, our van was stopped six times with demands to see passports and licenses. Long lines on highways resulting from waits at the many checkpoints were evidence of the government’s muscle-flexing.
This smothering police presence could be a preview of what awaits Honduras in the next four years. Orlando Hernandez stumped on a law-and-order platform, promising to put a solider on every street corner. Castro, on the other hand, advocated a community policing strategy to quell the tide of violence in Honduras. Orlando Hernandez stoked the fears of the Honduran people; Castro sought to address underlying social problems such as poverty, education and unemployment that exacerbate family and gang violence.
On election day, international observers from groups like the National Lawyers Guild and the Alliance for Global Justice witnessed operatives from the National Party draw on a bag of dirty tricks: attempted vote purchasing, purchasing of voter IDs, denying registered voters the chance to cast a ballot, altered tally sheets, voting by dead people or people who no longer live in Honduras and more. While some observers estimated that more than 20 percent of the votes were in question, the U.S. ambassador quickly came out with a statement congratulating the Honduran authorities on their handling of the elections and the vote count.
Though Castro’s failure to obtain the presidency is a bitter disappointment for her supporters, all is not lost. Her husband will enter Congress at the head of a 37-member LIBRE delegation. Many observers think it likely that LIBRE will coalesce with the Liberal Party (27) and the new Anti-Corruption Party (13) delegates and form a majority bloc in Congress. At the same time, the grassroots social movements that have propelled the resistance inside Honduras since the 2009 coup continue to organize and mobilize. Their goal remains the same: to transform their country from the bottom up as social movements have done in a number of other Latin American nations over the past decade.
Nancy Romer is professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and co-founder and chair of the Governance Board of the Brooklyn Food Coalition. She recently returned from a food sovereignty delegation in Honduras and Guatemala sponsored by Grassroots International.