This week I was supposed to visit our producer partners at Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. (COMSA) in Marcala, La Paz, Honduras, along with Equal Exchange Coffee Quality Manager Beth Ann Caspersen, to discuss milling practices, contracts, and ongoing project work with our counterparts at COMSA. However, due to political unrest we decided to reschedule our trip so as not to put any of our partners at risk, and recognizing that our work could be put on hold while the Honduran people are fighting for democracy.
I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in western Honduras with a small-scale coffee farmer cooperative from 2010-2012, and I love this country very much. I have been keeping in touch with friends and family there via messaging applications, and so far everyone is safe and fighting for their democratic rights and their voices to be heard. I wanted to share a little bit about what is currently happening on the ground in Honduras. I’ll do my best in this post to explain what is going on from my perspective. It’s important for me to also recognize that the U.S. government has contributed to the current political crisis on the ground.
On Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, Hondurans went to the polls to vote for the next president of Honduras. The two leading candidates were the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez and a challenger, Salvador Nasralla. Nasralla, a famous sportscaster in Honduras, led a new coalition (Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship) of the center-left on a strong pro-democracy and anti-corruption message directly calling for the electorate to vote Hernandez out of office. Hernandez represents the right-wing (some news outlets say center-right) Nacional party and has been widely recognized both nationally and internationally as intentionally consolidating power by undemocratic means to ensure his reelection.
Prior to Hernandez’s presidency, the Honduran constitution only permitted single-term presidencies. In fact, Hernandez’s party came to power in 2009 in what was considered to be a coup by most Latin American states, with the ousting of then-president Mel Zelaya. At the time the Nacional party justified the coup by saying that Zelaya had authoritarian dreams as he began discussing the possibility of exploring a constitutional change to allow for a second term. It is worth saying that Mel Zelaya was by no means a perfect politician. In what can only be called high-level political irony, Hernandez and his allies in the Nacional party did the exact thing for which they kicked Zelaya out of office: they de facto changed the constitution to allow for multi-term presidencies in 2015 in order to set Hernandez up for a re-election bid. (See this opinion piece in the New York Times for a little bit more background - Hernandez stacked the supreme court with friendly justices who ruled that the single-term limit violated a citizen’s constitutional right to run for office.)
Hernandez’s first term has been marked by a concerted effort to consolidate the power of the Nacional party and notably, a drop in the homicide rate. This drop in the homicide rate has earned Hernandez praise by the United States government. Hernandez and his government have found strong allies in the United States and in fact, the U.S. has a small military presence in Honduras. The U.S. military in Honduras is nothing new--the air base commonly known as Palmerola (formally, Soto Cano Air Base) was used by U.S. forces in the 1980s to support the Contras in guerilla fighting in Nicaragua.
In June 2009, while most members of the Organization of American States (OEA) recognized that a coup had taken place to end the presidency of Mel Zelaya, the United States chose to recognize what happened as a transition of government and not as a coup. Originally, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the actions a coup in the first couple of days, but changed the United State's position on the matter shortly thereafter.
Now we are in 2017 and all of these historical currents are still important and present in the minds of the Honduran electorate. The early reports from the electoral tribunal on Monday surprised nearly everyone with results showing that the challenger Salvador Nasralla was beating the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez by nearly five points with almost 50 percent of the vote counted. Shortly after this announcement, the electoral tribunal stopped releasing vote count results and there was widespread confusion and a lack of communication to the public about when to expect additional results.
This is where the story starts to get more concerning for this particular election. The next round of results showed a reversal of the early trend: the electoral tribunal announced that with 90 percent of the vote counted, Hernandez was beating Nasralla by over one percent. The Economist has done some reporting and data analysis to show how this shift is very improbable. Additionally, the Organization of American States (OEA) has published their official conclusions on the election and their conclusion is as follows: “The narrowness of the difference in election results, as well as the irregularities, mistakes, and systemic problems plaguing this election make it difficult for the Mission to be certain about the outcome.” The OEA and its member states have called for a total recount to take place immediately. We are now waiting to see what happens next, including the reaction of the Hernandez government, and the reaction of Nasralla and his supporters. Previously, both candidates had signed an agreement to respect the electoral tribunal’s declared outcome. However, given the irregularities, Nasralla backed out of the deal and has said that he will be in the streets with his supporters until there is a full recount and possibly a new election.
Eleven Hondurans have been killed in post-election violence as of today and the tension in the two largest cities - Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula - remains high. It is hard to say what to expect next, but we will be in touch with our producer partners and following developments closely. This is a vital time to support transparency, democracy, and most importantly, the constitutional (and human) rights of Hondurans. There is much more to this story and I have only scratched the surface here. I have not even mentioned the 2016 assassination of environmental activist Berta Caceres or the targeting of indigenous activists and defenders of natural resources. For more, The Guardian seems to be the largest English-language news organization with the most coverage.
Fuerza, Honduras. Te quiero mucho.