Honduras: No One’s Idea of an Electoral Fiesta

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“Vote? Me? No way? For what?”  said the young man, almost spitting out the words. “What is there to vote for in this election?”

All over Honduras, youth “in resistance,” women in resistance, artists in resistance, lawyers in resistance, well-dressed and blackberried political party leaders in resistance, campesinos in resistance, are saying no to these November 29th elections. While the word “resistance” may conjure up images of masked guerrillas, this image is totally misleading. As I could see in a trip this week to Tegucigalpa, it is, so far, in general an extraordinarily peaceful, civic resistance.

And yet to other Hondurans, elections seem like a way out of the terrible mess they have found themselves in. For many better-off Hondurans, exaggerated fears of a Chavez-style takeover fuel their support of the coup, and elections will bring them, they hope, a stamp of approval that the international community has, they feel, mysteriously withheld. And many Hondurans who did not support the coup are thinking, if only we can get through the elections, maybe things will calm down, maybe life will return to normal.

And yet an election so illegitimate will leave scars that are hard to heal. 

Possibly the last chance at having an election accepted as legitimate by coup opponents came when de facto leader Roberto Micheletti refused to step down and the Honduran Congress delayed voting on the restoration of President Manuel Zelaya as had been established in a cobbled-together October accord. Micheletti’s subsequent offer to abstain from exercising presidential powers for six days around the election is seen as “ni gallo ni gallina” (“neither rooster nor hen”) by puzzled Hondurans. 

Independent candidate Carlos H. Reyes withdrew from the presidential race stating that there were not adequate conditions for an election, while some other leftist party members running for the Congress remained in the game. Deposed president Manuel Zelaya remains holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, and the streets around the embassy are barricaded and manned by police.

U.S. diplomat Tom Shannon’s apparent endorsement of the elections despite this backtracking by the Micheletti regime was seen as a betrayal by Hondurans opposed to the coup, although subsequently a State Department spokesman said the United States will wait to see what happens on Election Day. The multiplicity of confusing statements from the United States frustrates them.  “How can the most powerful nation on earth not manage to have a united message?” one asked.  “If they United States really wanted to overturn this coup,” I heard more than once, in a common if perhaps not realistic evaluation, “They’d just have to snap their fingers.”

Whether or not electoral fraud occurs, the minimal conditions needed for campaigning in the lead up to free and fair elections do not exist. A state of emergency was declared via decree number PCM-M-30-0009 on November 19th “for all activities related to the general elections that take place on November 29th, to guarantee the right to vote [and] the transport, custody and monitoring of electoral materials.” The emergency decree authorizes the Defense Ministry to obtain whatever resources needed for “military operations to guarantee the right to vote.”

Even prior to this emergency decree, other decrees or declarations limiting civil liberties remain in effect, including one that requires public meetings of more than 20 people to obtain police permission twenty-four hours in advance, and another restricting the use of loudspeakers. According to the human rights group CIPRODEH, these are applied selectively, not enforced on the two main political parties but on the smaller parties and social movements. A decree authorizing the government to suspend licenses of radio and TV stations and other media for disturbing social peace remains in effect. Television news programs are one-sided, with newscasters portraying any call to abstain from voting as unpatriotic and painting a picture of clean and well-run elections. One of the few TV stations incorporating other perspectives, station 36, while now back on the air has its signal jammed outside of Tegucigalpa. Even within Tegucigalpa, according to human rights groups its signal is interfered with and its news broadcast replaced, inexplicably, with old cowboy movies—as I saw myself this week as I was clicking around for news. You can read more background information in May I Speak Freely Media’s article “Fear and Loathing in Honduras: Elections Under Repression.”

As one entrepreneur skeptical of the elections told me, “Exactly which electoral fiesta are they talking about?”

Five thousand army reservists have been mobilized around the elections, and the armed forces are playing a role in delivering ballots. Soldiers have been seen on the buses handing out leaflets encouraging people to vote. One observer noted, “The army is like a dragon that had been sleeping, and now it is awake.”

While some twenty deaths of Hondurans at the hands of army and police remain largely uninvestigated and unprosecuted, according to the Honduran human rights group CIPRODEH, Honduran judicial agencies are prosecuting people for violating curfews and protesting. The Attorney General has pledged to prosecute people for calling for an electoral boycott, an offense under Honduran law.

In an on-target Time magazine article, senior policy director at the Council of the Americas asserted, "You can't use an election to clean the slate after a coup. It just threatens to roll back democratic norms in Central America by decades."

The U.S. government must not put a stamp of approval on elections under these conditions.