How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On December 17, after a chaotic presidential election in Honduras weeks before—involving unexplained computer malfunctions and possible vote rigging—the country’s electoral commission proclaimed the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, the winner. Supporters of the Honduran opposition reacted with fury. Both the Organization of American States and the European Union, the two organizations that monitored the vote, noted irregularities. And the OAS rejected the official tally, calling for new elections.
For many Hondurans, the current scene is all too familiar: it is a possible repeat of the turmoil surrounding the 2009 coup d’état, and a tragic continuation of a progressive loss of credibility in its electoral institutions. What is different today is that the United States—along with most other countries in the region—has remained largely silent. Although it may be tempting for Washington to try to sweep the problems of democratic legitimacy and corruption under the rug, given its partnership with Honduras in fighting drug trafficking and illegal immigration, doing so would be a mistake. The experience of Honduras over the past eight years offers a cautionary tale for Washington: Unless Honduras' democratic legitimacy is restored, the country will continue to struggle to alleviate the many symptoms of its broken system.
AN UNMISTAKABLE ASSOCIATION
Honduras’ current crisis in governance has a long genesis. One could argue that it can be traced back to June 2009, when the military partnered with the country’s traditional political parties to forcibly remove the civilian, democratically elected president from power. Critics of Manuel “Mel” Zelaya justified the move by accusing the president of seeking a second term, which would have undermined the limits placed on the office by Honduras’ constitution. What actually sealed Zelaya’s fate was his alienation of the traditional elite. He was a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families and came to power promising continuity. But in 2007, he suddenly changed his stance. He adopted a “Bolivarian” platform of left-of-center social and economic policy, allied with Cuba and Venezuela (then under Hugo Chávez), and pledged to disrupt the status quo. This ideological turn—whether genuine or politically motivated—triggered fear among the traditional elite and turned them against him.
The coup exacerbated social and political divides in the country. Zelaya became the leader of a new political faction that vowed to represent the poorest Hondurans and tackle unacceptably high levels of inequality. Eight years later, Zelaya forged an alliance with Salvador Nasralla, who became Hernandez’s main opposition candidate, and other center-to-left parties.
Meanwhile, traditional political and economic elites, represented today by Hernandez, believed that after the coup they could pursue tough law-and-order policies, secure U.S. support for them, and largely ignore festering social problems. Hernandez was only able to run for reelection after the Supreme Court, which he had stacked with his allies, authorized it—in short, by declaring the constitution unconstitutional. In doing so, Hernandez engaged in the constitutional manipulations that Zelaya had supposedly attempted in 2009. The incumbent president is also rumored to have been involved in corrupt schemes to consolidate his power. In 2015, for example, top officials of the Honduran Social Security Institute were found to have stolen over $300 million, some of which had funded Hernandez’s 2013 presidential campaign. The scandal led to outrage and protests throughout the country, and eventually pressured Hernandez to set up an OAS mission staffed by international professionals to help prosecute and investigate corruption cases. Despite some partial gains by the OAS mission, serious corruption charges against Hernandez, senior officials, and close associates and family have mounted, with little progress in reducing impunity.
All of this helps explain why Nasralla, a political novice and former sportscaster, received such a strong show of support. He was in a five-point lead when the electoral court’s computer systems allegedly, and mysteriously, failed, only to come back up a day later, showing Hernandez ahead by a narrow margin.
In light of the cloud hanging over the bitterly contested results, many Hondurans feel aggrieved about what they see as a stolen election. In their minds, the association with the 2009 coup is unmistakable.
THE PROBLEMS THAT LINGER
The United States’ response to the crises in Honduras has been checkered. The coup against Zelaya posed a critical test for Washington’s support for democracy. At the time, U.S. President Barack Obama had been in office for only a few months. His initial reaction was to join with other Latin American governments to condemn and punish the de facto government. Honduras became the first country to be suspended from the Organization of American States since Cuba had been removed from the group in 1962.
But as negotiations to normalize Honduras’ institutions and to bring Zelaya back to power proved fruitless, Washington became more accommodating, supporting future elections. Unsurprisingly, this approach was harshly criticized from all sides: for some, the Obama administration was being too tough on the de facto government, and for others it was being too lenient.
The administration of President Donald Trump has said little about the recent controversy. The U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa has urged calm and sought to soft-pedal the crisis. (There is currently no U.S. ambassador in Honduras.) For the United States, Hernandez has been viewed as a reliable partner in the highly troubled Northern Triangle, which also includes Guatemala and El Salvador. The country is, furthermore, a pillar in the Alliance for Prosperity cooperation package, a multidimensional development plan backed by U.S. funds focused on spurring economic growth and fighting corruption, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration. Supporters credit Hernandez with purging some 30 percent of the police force, many on corruption charges, and reducing the country’s homicide rate, though it remains alarmingly high.
Given these stakes, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will support the OAS secretary general’s recommendation for a new election. Already, the U.S. State Department has released a statement implying tacit support for the controversial election results. And although several U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about the dubious electoral process, their displeasure is unlikely to result in any drastic policy shift toward Honduras.
Moreover, unlike in 2009, there is no regional or international consensus about whether and how to respond to the crisis. Several leaders, including Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, have already called Hernandez to congratulate him on his reelection.
The Hernandez government, for its part, will hold firm. (This is precisely what the de facto government did after the 2009 coup.) They will simply wait for the storm to pass, for the violence to subside, and for the government’s opponents to accept the results, however grudgingly. As of now, Hernandez and the military have declared a state of emergency to assert full control over the country and to ensure that nothing stands in the way of a second term.
This presents the United States with a dilemma. Washington invariably has to weigh its interests against each other. Its history in Central America during the Cold War is particularly instructive. For many years, fighting communism trumped other U.S. interests, such as upholding human rights. Today, the issues are the war on drugs and illegal immigration.
The lesson now, as it was during the Cold War, is that underlying problems of democratic institutional order and social inequality, left unattended, do not go away: they stick around and make other problems worse. If Washington ignores human rights and democracy, as it has sometimes done in the past, these problems will eventually come back to bite it. Down the road, the United States will have little choice but to deal with the consequences of ever-deeper crises. Democratic rule hardly guarantees an end to drug trafficking and violence. But sustainable solutions to drugs and illegal immigration can be achieved only through cooperation with legitimate, credible governments committed to the rule of law.