On November 24, 2013, Honduras held national elections; it has been decided that Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party won the presidency. His term will begin on January 27. Eben Levey, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, participated as an election monitor and wrote the following report about his experience. It was published in the January-February 2014 NewsNotes.
Photo from Honduras, November 2013, taken by Eben Levey. Translation: "Silencing the truth crushes the dignity of the victims. Mobilize! No impunity!"
José Luis stood up to make his point. "Of course there was fraud. Everyone knows that and recognizes it. But they will still make Juan Orlando, or rather I should say Juan Robando [stealing/thief], the next president. This is going to be a hard four years. It just means that we will have to work harder for the next four years if we are still alive." Another woman echoed José Luis and said, "Yes, if we are still alive."
Father Roberto Coyne, a Maryknoll priest who has worked in a parish on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras since 1991, convened a post-election meeting between several parishioners and myself. He wanted them to have the chance to talk to me about the elections since I had just participated in an observation delegation with Fundación Share and US-El Salvador Sister Cities. We had been credentialed by the Honduran Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE in Spanish), and had been given nearly unrestricted access to monitor and observe the elections process at the ground level. Our group of more than 50 delegates was one of six groups under the coordination of the Honduras Solidarity Network (which totaled more than 160 observers), and we were among the nearly 1,000 election observers drawn from the OAS, the European Union, the Carter Institute, and others.
From our experiences in a conflict ridden, militarized region called Bajo Aguan, we were incredulous when the OAS and the European Union released statements characterizing the elections as "generally fair and transparent." Although Honduras revamped its electoral law to increase transparency in this presidential election, what we observed on the ground was far from a "free and fair" election.
Electoral fraud on the ground
On paper, the electoral reforms are impressive, putting in what should have been safeguards against electoral fraud. Among them were measures to provide representation at every voting table for members of each party participating in the election. At multiple points during the electoral process, voting table measures had the opportunity to raise concerns about a particular vote. In theory, this amount of oversight should have prevented the ground-level fraud of vote-buying, intimidation, and stuffing the ballot boxes. However, only the largest parties have the resources to put party members at each table. What followed then were widespread reports of smaller parties selling credentials to larger parties, consolidating oversight in the hands of the National Party and the Liberal Party. I witnessed this during the vote count in Tocoa, Aguan, where at multiple tables, despite "members" of the Patriotic Alliance staffing the table, no votes were recorded for their party. A generous thought might be that these individuals realized that victory was futile and cast their vote for another party, but it occurred far too frequently for this to be random.
Similarly, the new voting law prohibits the use of cameras and cell phones during voting, to prevent voters from snapping a photo of their ballot in order to claim payment from whichever party bought their vote. The voting tables that instructed voters to hand over cameras and cell phones were few and far between, and a number of voters gave themselves away when they forgot to turn off the flash on their device - an event that repeatedly received little to no attention from table members. In fact, vote buying was an open and condoned practice by all parties, on both the left and right. Another group of observers reported a mayoral candidate in Santa Barbara walking in and handing out 100 Lempira bills (about US$5) to the voters. Our small observation group also overheard conversations as people were leaving the voting tables, asking questions such as "Where do we go to collect our money?"
One form of official and open vote buying was conducted exclusively by the National Party. Across the country, National Party activists were handing out discount cards to potential voters. The card, as reported by the National Lawyers Guild electoral observation group, "lowers the cost of groceries, pharmaceuticals, cell phone plans, and other goods and services, reportedly identifies the bearer as a National Party member and is good for four years. Whether or not this constitutes bribery, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) calls it a hidden campaign financing source which may directly violate Honduran election laws, for businesses having contracts with the government."
Among other serious irregularities, a number of voting tables had ballots missing from the electoral packets, at least one table had discrepancies between the number of voters and the number of ballots cast, and at another voting table, we observed table members telling voters to vote for the National Party. When confronted by a dissenting voice at the table, we witnessed the National Party activists shout down the dissenting individual, telling her that they were running the table.
Systematic and open intimidation
However, vote buying and ballot irregularities were likely not the most concerning phenomena on the ground. Intimidation, by the State and by party activists, was rampant, and it speaks to the atmosphere of violence and impunity that currently pervades Honduran society. With the highest murder rate in the world and levels of impunity that are nearly 100 percent, Hondurans are currently living a reality of violence that is nearly unimaginable and certainly unsustainable. While much of the violence and deaths are attributable to gang and drug trafficking violence, the lawlessness has been used as a cover for targeted political assassinations and paramilitary activity. In the Bajo Aguan, campesino leaders of MUCA (Unified Movement of Campesinos in the Aguan) have to move often due to death threats from paramilitaries under the employ of large landowners such as Miguel Facussé. Involved in struggles over land and subsistence, the campesinos are not only fighting for land that was once theirs and is now in the hands of Facussé and others, but they also must battle mining and hydroelectric projects that have expanded in recent years and threaten water supplies and environmental sustainability. In the midst of these struggles are that constant threats from private paramilitaries and the State, which have repeatedly attempted to evict MUCA settlements and land occupations.
On election day, we saw that the Army had significantly more presence in MUCA strongholds than in the urban areas. In one voting center near a MUCA settlement, four armed military members "guarded" five voting tables, while in Saba, the city where I was observing, two armed military members watched 36 voting tables. If the military was intimidating campesinos during the voting in rural areas, the job of intimidation fell to party activists in the urban areas. In Saba and Tocoa, we witnessed groups of large young men milling about the entrances to voting tables, noting who was voting there. In one case, they completely blocked the doorway and only allowed people in to vote after having a few words with them. It appeared that a number of prospective voters turned around and left without having voted once they saw the men at the entrances to the voting tables.
Even our group of observers was not free from intimidation. We held a joint press conference in San Pedro Sula two days before the election, in which a representative from the Honduran Solidarity Network condemned the Honduran government for its repeated violations of human rights. While our group left for Bajo Aguan immediately after the press conference, officials from Immigration arrived at the hotel from which the Honduran Solidarity Network was coordinating the observation groups and demanded all of the credentials and documentation from the various groups, specifically asking about the group of Salvadorans (my group) who was going to Bajo Aguan. As we were credentialed by the Supreme Elections Tribunal, and had official documentation, we could not imagine any motive other than intimidation behind the actions of the Immigration authorities. In Tegucigalpa, these actions were repeated against another group of international observers, but in that case, Immigration entered the hotel wearing facemasks, fatigues, and heavily armed. Finally, as we entered Bajo Aguan, after being stopped time and again at the numerous military checkpoints along the highway, our driver reported to us that the military had been advised that we were in the area and repeatedly told us that they "are watching us." While not an overt threat, the message was clear that from the standpoint of the military, our group of international observers was unwelcome in the region.
The aftermath of the elections
As we witnessed on the ground level, the Honduran elections were far from "generally transparent." In the hours after the closing of the polls, as television and radio stations were reporting the results coming in from around the country, the nearly five-point lead that LIBRE held was suddenly reversed and given to the National Party’s Juan Orlando. LIBRE, and their candidate Xiomara Castro, had claimed victory based on their polling results and the copies of vote counts that they were receiving from table members around the country. In spite of the optimism and conviction that LIBRE showed, sure of their victory, there was little chance that the elections would go their way. One of my fellow observers, Olivia Amadon of Fundación Cristosal, later wrote, "The question was never whether or not Xiomara Castro could get the number of votes needed to become president. The question has always been whether Xiomara Castro and the social movement that supports her would be able to overcome deep-seated political corruption and the concentration of power in the hands of the country’s economic elite, who have absolute control of the military and their own private security forces."
The answer to that question appears, at least in the short term, to be no. The challenge that the social movement has given the regime is evident in the violent actions that before, during, and after the elections. The authorities have responded with force to the largely peaceful protests against the election results. The military violated the autonomy of the national university to fire tear gas at protesting students in Tegucigalpa. Assassinations of LIBRE activists and left-wing journalists continue. An emboldened high-ranking military officer, Colonel Alfaro, publicly threatened a U.S. human rights activist who has been working in Honduras for a number of years. While this type of political violence is not new, in fact it has been a hallmark of the coup government, it indicates that the National Party is following through on Juan Orlando’s promise to "do whatever we have to do" to rule the country.
While both LIBRE and the Anti-Corruption Party (a right wing party that fielded a popular sportscaster as its presidential candidate) refused to recognize the election results and called for a complete and transparent recount, the Supreme Elections Tribunal stated that Juan Orlando’s victory was "irreversible." Unable to agree upon the form and structure of a recount, the Supreme Elections Tribunal did not, in the end, have a recount, and it certified Juan Orlando’s victory on December 11. In spite of clear concerns over electoral fraud and human rights violations, the OAS and the U.S. State Department immediately issued statements recognizing Juan Orlando’s victory.
However, as José Luis said, this clearly fraudulent victory may very well invigorate the efforts of social movements and community activists to build from the grassroots the Honduras that they would like to see. The people with whom I met, parishioners with Padre Roberto, community activists in El Progreso, indigenous activists, campesino activists, and LIBRE activists, overwhelming demonstrated a courage and conviction in the face of terrible human rights violations and impunity. They are the ones who will change Honduras for the better and I am honored to accompany such individuals as they work to build peaceful and just communities.