The production Honduran Elections, staged at a small, rundown theater in Central America on November 29, left the audience unconvinced, and failed to resolve a confused and conflict-ridden plotline.
Written and directed by the Honduran elite and the Honduran armed forces, with the help of the U.S. State Department, the play opens on the empty streets of Tegucigalpa in what is announced as the most participatory elections in the history of the nation.
This is just the first of the inexplicable contradictions between the narrative and reality that run through the play.
Honduran Elections tells the story of a poor nation rocked by a military coup d'état and occupied by its own armed forces. The contrived plot then attempts to convince the audience that the same forces that carried out the coup —kidnapping the elected president and launching a wave of bloody repression — are now carrying out "free and fair elections" to restore democracy. The play follows these characters throughout election day, in a series of charades that leaves the viewer with the unsavory sensation of having been played as a pawn in a theater of the absurd.
For example, during the entire multi-million-dollar production, the elected president of this nation remains offstage. It is never explained in the play why this key figure was not given a role. The audience is expected to accept the fact that his absence is insignificant to the plot. Since the supposed message of the drama is that democracy has been restored to a country held under an illegitimate regime, the missing president makes no dramatic sense.
The major characters in the drama are a large group of miscast national and international observers, who remember their lines but frequently fall out of their roles as impartial observers; a mostly invisible Supreme Electoral Tribunal that issues undecipherable and contradictory statistics; and candidates who attempt to lend credibility to the plot but are so self-serving and devoted to the anti-democratic forces that their actions mock the very cause they claim to support.
This reviewer can only hope that the disastrous Honduran Elections will never be produced on another stage again. The writers, directors, and actors of the debacle have insulted the intelligence of viewers throughout the world and degraded the noble theme of democracy that purports to lie at the center of this deceptive drama.
Witness to a Sham
The mock theater review above is how it felt to witness the Honduran elections from my seat in Tegucigalpa last week. I arrived on November 27 to monitor human rights violations, and observe the context and accompanying conditions of an electoral process that could under no circumstances be validated, due to the fatal flaws in its origin.
The news is not that Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo of the National Party beat Elwin Santos of the Liberal Party. Since the military ousted the elected president Manuel Zelaya on June 28, the bipartisan system gave way to a far deeper duality — for and against the coup d'etat. Both Lobo and Santos favored the military takeover of the Honduran democracy and supported the illegal regime of Roberto Micheletti. Both sought to gain power by laundering the coup through these elections and to lock in a transition that guaranteed the continued power of the Honduran economic elite.
In fact, the November 29 national elections for president and congress shouldn't have taken place. The voting was organized and overseen by an illegal coup regime. This regime officially suspended basic civil liberties, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It closed down independent media, or repeatedly blocked transmissions.
In Honduras, normal electoral activities were redefined as criminal behavior, including holding rallies and proclaiming the right to abstain. Reports of coercion in factories and among public employees came in from individuals who suffered the threats firsthand. The army enforced the dictatorial decrees in the street.
Some 100 registered candidates, ranging from presidential candidates to local mayors, withdrew from the elections in protest of the continued coup and the internal exile of the elected president. The popular resistance called a boycott and a "popular curfew," urging people to stay at home on election day. This was in part to avoid confrontations with the over 30,000 security forces called out to "protect order," in a nation where these same forces are responsible for massive human rights violations and scores of murders of members of the resistance.
The Honduran elections should never have taken place because Honduras, under the coup regime, failed to meet the basic criteria of "free and fair elections" set out in documents like the one issued by the Inter-Parliamentary Council in 1994. The Honduran state didn't even come close to meeting the basic criteria of free elections by assuring freedom of movement, assembly, association, and expression. The security forces responsible for human rights violations before, during, and after voting have been granted complete immunity from justice. In San Pedro Sula, the police violently repressed a nonviolent march supporting the boycott, beating and arresting various people.
From Polls to Percentage Points
But the elections did take place. On November 29, some Hondurans, particularly in the wealthiest neighborhoods, came out to vote while most of the poor stayed home. Those of us who drove from poll to poll to check for participation, militarization, and incidents confirm this phenomenon.
Concerned that the eyewitness accounts of sparse participation could undermine the U.S. message of "mission accomplished" in Honduras, Ambassador Hugo Llorens appeared at the polls to make the pre-emptive declaration that the "elections are a technical issue and the statistical results will tell the real story." We were all told not to believe our own eyes, as all eyes then turned to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
On the night of November 29, the Electoral Tribunal (TSE by its Spanish initials) triumphantly announced that 61% of registered voters had turned out to vote. This was a bald-faced lie. Their own statistics showed that only 49.2% of Hondurans had voted — a considerable decrease from past elections. Real News reports that an elections official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of his life, claimed that Saul Escobar, the head of the Tribunal, invented the statistic.
The elections observation organization, Hagamos Democracia (Let`s Make Democracy) contracted by the TSE to deliver early results, reported a 47.6% turnout. In an exclusive interview with journalist Dick Emanuelsson, Rolando Bu of Hagamos Democracia attempted to explain the discrepancy, "We are working on the basis of the voter registration list we received of 4.6 million. I haven't spoken with the magistrates (of the Tribunal) yet, but it is likely that they are subtracting aspects such as migration and deaths." Needless to say, it is not acceptable practice to alter the voter registration list during the counting process.
Hagamos Democracia is financed by the National Democratic Institute, an arm of the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy. The NDI issued an elections report, sidestepping the critical issue of turnout and noting only that a discrepancy existed. It stated that it could not send a formal observation mission because there was no pre-electoral observation, which is a critical part of the process. Yet the NDI's 22 members wore "elections observers" vests during their work.
The NDI report also noted the compromised impartiality of many of the international observers. "Regrettably, the TSE offered funding for transportation, lodging, and meals, and a number of observers accepted this offer. The Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation states that international election observers "should not accept funding or logistical support from the government whose elections are being observed, as it may raise a significant conflict of interest."
This conflict of interest soon became painfully obvious. Interviewed on international television about the elections, I noted that the elections would not solve the political crisis in Honduras due to the lack of legitimacy of coup-run elections and the climate of violation of human rights, and because many nations would not recognize the results. A crowd of "observers" gathered around the interview in the hall in front of the Electoral Tribunal and verbally attacked me, shouting "liar" and ordering that I be thrown out of the country. I tried to engage in debate but the attacks continued and, fearing for my safety, I was escorted out of the area by a Tribunal security guard.
The Crisis Deepens
The United States played out the script written since mid-October. The newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela immediately called the elections "a significant step in Honduras's return to the democratic and constitutional order after the 28 June coup." He went on to emphasize that it was just a first step, and that the nation must establish a government of national unity within the framework of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord.
But on December 2, the Honduran congress closed the circle on the consolidation of a military takeover in the country by voting against the reinstatement of President Manuel Zelaya. "We're disappointed by this decision since the United States had hoped the Congress would have approved his return," Valenzuela said in a statement. "And our policy since June 28 has been consistently principled, and we've condemned the coup d'état and have continued to accept President Zelaya as the democratically elected and legitimate leader of Honduras throughout this political crisis. However, the decision taken by Congress, which it carried out in an open and transparent manner, was in accordance with its mandate in Article 5 of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord. Both President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti agreed to this accord on October 30th."
The loophole in the Tegucigalpa Accord that allowed the coup-controlled congress to first delay the vote until after the elections and then vote against reinstating the president allowed for the violation of the main point of the San Jose Accords, mediated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The U.S government played a major role in inserting this loophole. State Department official Thomas Shannon negotiated with Republican Senator Jim DeMint over recognition of the elections without reinstatement of Zelaya in return for Senate confirmations of Valenzuela and Shannon's own confirmation as ambassador to Brazil.
Now the State Department has launched a concerted campaign, along with the coup regime, to get foreign nations to recognize the Honduran elections. Regional countries that have or hope for free trade agreements with the U.S. have agreed to play along. So far the countries that have announced they will recognize the elections include Panama, Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica.
Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several European countries have announced they will not recognize the elections. President Lula da Silva reiterated Brazil's position from the Summit of Latin America, Spain, and Portugal, stating that his government would not recognize the Honduran elections or enter into dialogue with Pepe Lobo. "It's not possible to recognize a coup supporter. Period," he said in reference to Lobo. Lula added, "This is a matter of common sense, a question of principles, we cannot make agreements with the forces of political vandalism in Latin America."
International media such as CNN, along with the State Department and the Honduran coup leaders, are heading up the charge to call the elections "clean and fair", as The New York Times put it, and use the false voter turn-out rate as the sole indicator of the election's legitimacy. Some allies appear to be weakening their stance against recognition.
President Zelaya, who remains holed up in the heavily barricaded Brazilian embassy, told the BBC that the elections were fraudulent and would only intensify the crisis. The National Front Against the Coup has decided to cease the daily demonstrations in the street and move on to building a broad movement for a constitutional assembly. Juan Barahona, a leader of the Front, announced that the focus on reinstating Zelaya has ended. Zelaya has announced that he would not return to government until the end of his term on January 27 because it would be validating a coup-managed transfer of power.
Human rights groups have stated that the violations committed under the coup will not be forgotten. Honduras suffered a wave of human rights violations including assassinations, rapes, beatings and arbitrary detentions of resistance members. An Amnesty International delegation, after 10 days in the country, noted in a press statement that the "crisis in Honduras does not end with the election results, the authorities cannot return to business as usual without ensuring human rights safeguards…There are dozens of people in Honduras still suffering the effects of the abuses carried out in the past five months. Failure to punish those responsible and to fix the malfunctioning system would open the door for more abuses in the future."
Roberto Micheletti has now returned to power after a "leave of absence" in a new stage of the political and legal limbo that has characterized this nation since June 28. Some wonder how long any president can remain in office now that a military coup has been deemed successful. "Many Hondurans fear that the coup's success represents a threat to the future stability of a democratic state," writes Robert White of the Center for International Policy, who then poses the following rhetorical question. "If the few dozen men who hold the strings of power and wealth can escalate one of the nation's recurring political brawls into the overthrow of an elected president, how can future democratic leaders dare to challenge the culture of wealth and impunity that has made Honduras one of the most corrupt, crime-ridden, and unjust nations in the world?"
The spectacle mounted to justify the coup leaders' retention of power has now played out. In the sequel, the excluded character — the people of Honduras who joined together to reject the hijacking of their democracy — will play a key role. Throughout the country, farmers, feminists, union members and citizens are more organized than ever before. The demand for the constitutional assembly to change one of the world's most obsolete constitutions is at the center of this new phase.
In the end, the Honduran political crisis cannot be resolved without a legal means to channel dissent and eliminate the gross injustices of Honduran society. A broad swathe of the population that rejects the "elections panacea" scenario is determined to fight for just that, and nothing less. They deserve the support of the U.S. government and the rest of the international community.