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The US Double Standard on Elections in Latin America and the Caribbean
The U.S. government has a puzzling approach to elections in the hemisphere. Back in November 2009, the State Department considered that elections held under Honduras’s brutal coup regime were “free and fair,” despite widespread press censorship and the imposition of martial law during much of the electoral campaign. Then, in November 2010, the U.S. government endorsed the electoral process in Haiti despite the fact that the country’s most popular political party had been arbitrarily excluded and despite a vast number of irregularities identified by both observers and the electoral authorities. Afterwards, the U.S. government, together with Organization of American States (OAS) “experts,” arbitrarily changed the elections’ first round results and then applied extreme pressure on the Haitian government to force it to accept the change.
Elections were held in Nicaragua in November. Turnout was high and, though some observer groups considered the elections to not be sufficiently transparent, there were no credible claims of fraud. Despite a very clear margin of victory for presidential incumbent Daniel Ortega—who won over 60% of the votes—the U.S. government expressed strong misgivings over the electoral process. At a meeting of the OAS Permanent Council on November 16, a senior U.S. official announced that the United States was “seriously concerned about the irregularities” in Nicaragua’s elections. The official called on the OAS electoral observation team to “evaluate all of the possible responses, including diplomatic initiatives . . . to determine the steps for strengthening democracy in Nicaragua.”
The U.S. government’s approach to elections in the hemisphere is, on the surface, baffling. It begins to make sense, however, if one considers the United States’s long-standing political agenda in the region.
In Nicaragua, the U.S. government has, since the late 1970s, consistently sought to undermine the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). In Honduras and Haiti—and throughout the rest of the region—the State Department has favored right-wing political movements aligned with elite business and political sectors in the United States. As was the case with previous governments, the Obama administration claims to act solely in the defense of democracy and human rights. In fact, as the contrasting U.S. responses to these three elections demonstrate, the administration is primarily concerned with promoting a narrow political agenda that offers little benefit to Latin Americans or U.S citizens. In many cases, the United States uses its significant leverage at the OAS to obtain support for its positions on elections.
The tragic history of U.S covert and overt interventions in Nicaragua in the 1980s is well known. William Robinson and other scholars have documented the well-funded methods that the United States applied in Nicaragua to assure the FSLN’s political defeat in the 1990 elections after U.S.-backed Contra forces failed to achieve its demise by violent means. There is as yet little scholarly research focused on U.S. political intervention in Nicaragua in recent years. However there are a number of troubling incidents that have been reported in the media. For instance, when it became clear in 2006 that the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega could win the presidential elections, the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua tried to prevent his victory by making threats—for example, suggesting that U.S. aid could be cut—and actively seeking to unite right-wing opposition groups. On November 24, 2008, the United States cut off $62 million of Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) aid to Nicaragua following unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the municipal elections of November. In contrast, a little less than a year later, a military coup toppled the left-leaning democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, yet millions in MCC funds continued to flow to the country.
Nicaragua’s November general elections unfolded with few irregularities, though some international observers reported having been initially prevented from accessing certain polling locations and both the European Union (EU) and OAS observation teams criticized the election’s “lack of transparency.” This criticism appears to have been based primarily on one opposition party’s claim that the country’s electoral authorities refused to provide their electoral monitors with proper credentials. It should be noted, however, that the party in question requested thousands of credentials only two days before the elections, long after the deadline for such a request had passed.
Whether or not the EU and OAS observation missions were entirely justified in their criticism, it is important to note that neither alleged that fraud took place in the elections. The OAS mission chief, Dante Caputo, stated that OAS observers had seen no “significant irregularities,” and a quick count carried out by the OAS team produced results very similar to those of the Nicaraguan electoral council. OAS secretary general Miguel Insulza initially lauded the electoral process, saying “in Nicaragua yesterday, democracy and peace took a step forward.” However, a couple days later Insulza had the quote removed from the OAS website. Prior to the elections, independent polls by Cid-Gallup and M&R Consultants had repeatedly predicted a decisive win for Ortega.
Though there is little basis for contesting the results of Nicaragua’s elections, the U.S. has sought to use the complaints around transparency issues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire process. It’s unlikely that any other government in the hemisphere besides Canada’s right-wing administration will back the U.S. position. But it is highly probable that the United States will adopt an increasingly hostile policy toward Nicaragua based on the unfounded assessment that the elections were not free and fair.
After passing a similar judgment on Haiti’s 2000 parliamentary elections, the United States mounted a campaign to destabilize the country’s left-leaning government that culminated in a coup and the forced exile of the democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. An OAS electoral observer mission initially approved on the elections as valid, calling them a “great success,” but later joined the United States in characterizing them as illegitimate.
Whereas there was little basis for not recognizing Haiti’s 2000 elections, the November 2010 general elections were plagued with defects that were widely denounced long before the elections occurred. As international organizations and members of Congress from both parties pointed out, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) barred the nation’s most popular party, the left-leaning Fanmi Lavalas, from participating based on unsustainable technicalities. Also, no effective measures were taken to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in camps as a result of the earthquake on January 12, 2010, would be able to access the polls. The United States failed to denounce these grave flaws. In fact, the Obama administration provided much of the funding for the elections and pushed for them to take place sooner rather than later despite the major logistical challenges brought on by the earthquake.
The United States’s negative role in the controversial 2010 elections didn’t end there. Following the election’s first round at the end of November, the United States forced the CEP to change the results based on an arbitrary determination made by an OAS “Expert Verification Mission.” This mission, in which the United States, Canada, and France played central roles, called for the CEP to switch right-leaning presidential candidate Michel Martelly from third to second place. This ensured Martelly’s participation in the second round of the elections and removed from the race Jude Celestin, the candidate backed by outgoing president René Préval.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research analyzed the expert mission’s methodology and determined that “the Mission did not establish any legal, statistical, or other logical basis for its conclusions.” Nevertheless, the United States not only supported the Mission’s recommendations but exerted decisive pressure. It suspended the U.S. visas of ruling party leaders and threatened to cut off of aid if the Haitian authorities did not agree to the change. The United States thus succeeded in further sapping the credibility of elections that were already seriously flawed.
The only recent elections in the region that can be considered more problematic than Haiti’s are Honduras’s November 2009 elections, which were held under a dictatorial coup regime. Hondurans voted in “a climate of harassment, violence, and violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly” according to the Washington-based human rights group Center for Justice and International Law. As the vote took place, many of the members of the Honduran constitutional government remained in exile, including President Manuel Zelaya who was confined to an internal exile in Brazil’s embassy in Tegucigalpa. At the end of the day, Honduran electoral authorities published blatantly false voter turnout figures in an apparent attempt to convince the international community that voter participation was at an all-time high. In recent days, the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, Elvin Santos, threatened to reveal secrets about “what really happened” during the elections; to which the head of the electoral authority replied, “I also have other secrets, and if we discuss secrets, let's tell all of them.”
Instead of joining the chorus of regional governments that refused to recognize the Honduran elections, the United States enthusiastically endorsed them and insisted that they had allowed the country to “turn the page” on the coup d’état that shattered the country’s democracy on June, 28, 2009. Though the OAS refused to send electoral observers to monitor the voting process, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI)—both recipients of U.S.-government funding and closely aligned with the State Department—sent observation missions that characterized the vote as “free and fair.” Ongoing press censorship and the violent repression of a peaceful demonstration on the day of the election, failed to dampen U.S. enthusiasm.
Given the U.S. endorsement and direct support for extraordinarily flawed elections in both Honduras and Haiti, it can be challenging to understand the logic behind our government’s repeated and harsh criticism of alleged “irregularities throughout the Nicaraguan electoral process.” Though the recent vote in Nicaragua may not have been perfectly transparent, it wasn’t nearly as problematic as an election that excluded the country’s biggest party or an election held under a repressive dictatorship. How the United States can cast doubt on the legitimacy of the former and actively support the latter speaks volumes about the U.S. double standard when it comes to promoting democracy and human rights in the hemisphere. It also reveals how fundamentally unchanged U.S. policy toward the region remains since the Cold War era of “containment” and “roll back” policies targeting left-leaning movements.
Sadly, it is safe to bet that the harsh rhetoric that the United States has directed at the Nicaraguan elections will be accompanied by overt and covert measures to destabilize the FSLN government, as has been the case in the past. The United States is also putting pressure on the OAS—which has yet to publish its final report on the elections—to adopt an aggressive posture toward the Nicaraguan government. This was made clear on November 15 when a U.S. official told the OAS Permanent Council that it was “critical to the collective defense of democracy in this hemisphere that our organization focuses keenly on the current challenge to democracy in Nicaragua.”
It is precisely because the United States continuously seeks to impose its narrow and aggressive political agenda at the OAS that Latin America and the Caribbean nations are committed to developing an alternative multilateral group. Less than three months after the United States unilaterally endorsed the electoral charade in Honduras, all of these nations agreed to form the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, known by the Spanish acronym CELAC. This new group, which includes every country in the region but the United States and Canada, was officially launched on December 3 and is likely to eventually displace the OAS as the region’s foremost regional organization.