Recent days have seen violent repression of mass protests against perceived electoral fraud in Honduras. Resistance to the heavy-handed government response has come from unexpected places, with one elite division of the police forces refusing orders to suppress demonstrations. The Canadian government’s hands are not clean in Honduras, having played a significant role in this Central American country since a coup in 2009 overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.
On June 26, 2009, I received a curious email from the Canadian consulate in Honduras. It urged Canadians in Honduras to stay off the streets the following Sunday, June 28. Although I was safely ensconced in an office in Vancouver at the time, I had met with officials at the consulate earlier that year, so I assumed that they thought I was stationed in the country.
What was strange about the message was that the only event of note planned in Honduras for June 28 was a non-binding consultation to ask citizens if they favoured including on the ballot in the November national elections a referendum question on electing a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution. Hardly, I thought, a reason for foreigners to hide in their homes.
The consultation was never held. Early on June 28, soldiers stormed the presidential palace, arrested progressive president Manuel Zelaya and forced him, still in his pajamas, on a plane and into exile. The coup ushered in what has now been eight years of repression of social activists, environmental defenders and marginalized groups, skyrocketing murder rates, and the increased penetration of organized crime into higher and higher levels of the state, while opening the country to foreign investment and the expansion of mining, agro-industry and infrastructure.
Back in 2009, Canadian diplomats joined the U.S. in blocking efforts in the Organization of American States and the United Nations to restore the constitutional order immediately after the coup.
The violent suppression in Honduras of the popular uprising that has followed this year’s elections is a result of the unfinished business of the 2009 coup.
The presidential election saw incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party — principal vehicle of the country’s traditional oligarchy — face off against Salvador Nasralla, candidate of a coalition calling itself the “Alliance Against the Dictatorship.” The alliance is comprised of the left-wing Libre party — formed by supporters of ousted president Zelaya — and the centre-right Anticorruption Party.
Hours after the polls closed, with 58 per cent of the votes counted, results gave Nasralla a strong lead of 45 per cent to Orlando’s 40 per cent. The count was suddenly halted (The electoral tribunal blamed a “computer glitch”), and when it began again on Nov. 27 Nasralla’s advantage had almost disappeared. Counting proceeded at a snail’s pace for the next couple of days and gradually, Hernández replaced Nasralla’s lead.
The Honduran national congress backed the 2009 coup that overthrew Zelaya, arguing that his planned consultation would violate the constitution, which prohibits re-election of presidents. The consultation, congressional leaders argued, could lead to a referendum that might approve the election of a constituent assembly, which might have modified the constitution to allow for re-election.
Juan Orlando Hernández presided over the National Congress in the first post-coup government. Now it is Orlando Hernández himself who stands for re-election, bypassing the constitutional articles prohibited this by replacing Supreme Court judges with more malleable ones, who ruled last year that the ban on re-election violates Hernández’s civic rights.
With still no official final count announced, supporters of the opposition, suspecting fraud, gathered outside the Electoral Tribunal headquarters in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 29. Repression by security forces sparked new anti-fraud demonstrations throughout the country, and running battles between protesters and government security forces ordered to suppress them.
Police refuse orders
On Dec. 1, Hernández declared a state of emergency and a dusk-to-dawn curfew, permitting police and military to detain anyone caught outside during those hours. Alarming cell phone footage of widespread violence by security forces showed handcuffed prisoners repeatedly beaten while lying on the ground, people dragged behind police motorcycles, and troops firing live ammunition into crowds.
Undeterred, tens of thousands of anti-fraud protesters gathered in Tegucigalpa on Dec. 3 in defiance of the curfew and participated in a torchlight march through the streets. As of Dec. 4, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 11 people have been killed. Dozens more have been wounded by security forces, detained, or disappeared. At that point, the Cobras, Honduras’ crack counterinsurgency police, announced that they will refuse further orders to repress the people and were returning to their bases. Throughout the night, other national police units abandoned their posts to join the Cobras.
Canada has been a staunch ally of the National Party governments that have maintained power since the 2009 coup.
In November 2009, after the de facto regime held highly-controversial elections in which the leading opposition candidate spent the campaign in hospital after a police beating, Canada was the first state to congratulate Honduras on “free and peaceful elections.”
Shortly afterwards, Canada opened free trade negotiations with the new National Party government of President Pepe Lobo, and, in April 2010, Canada’s Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent led a delegation of Canadian mining executives to the country, promising hundreds of millions in investment if the Honduran government were to repeal regulations imposed on mining corporations by the former Zelaya administration. The trade agreement, incorporating special rights for Canadian corporations, was ratified in 2014, and Honduras became Central America’s leading recipient of Canadian aid.
Since that time, despite growing evidence of deep-rooted corruption and participation in drug trafficking, Canada has stood by the National Party governments. In March of this year, a former top Honduran drug lord who is now cooperating with the DEA testified in the U.S. cocaine trafficking trial of former President Lobo’s son that Hernández had received large sums of money from drug traffickers, and in late 2016 President’s Hernández brother was named as a “person of interest” in a DEA investigation.
Recount and investigation required
Although the Honduran Electoral Tribunal announced Dec. 4 its final tally with a small advantage to Hernández, the outcome of the elections remains unclear and the tribunal stopped short of declaring Hernández re-elected.
Many international observers now believe that the credibility of the results can only be restored through a complete recount of votes overseen by international observers and an investigation into the manipulation of the constitution prior to, during, and after the electoral process.
Canada can help to heal the wounds of the 2009 coup by making it clear that it will not recognize a new government in Honduras until these conditions are fulfilled.
Steve Stewart is the executive director of CoDevelopment Canada, a Vancouver-based organization that facilitates solidarity between social and labour organizations in Canada and Latin America.