Honduras is coming apart, and the State Department’s response is utterly nonsensical

Many worry the country's right-wing president is rigging the current election.

Soldiers clear away a barricade erected by anti-government protestors blocking the road to Valle de los Angeles, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Soldiers clear away a barricade erected by anti-government protestors blocking the road to Valle de los Angeles, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

It’s been two weeks since Hondurans headed to the polls to elect a new president. Since then, there have been reports of electoral fraud, widespread protesting and rioting that have rocked the already-precarious Central American state. And the U.S. response? Send them military aid.

The crisis started in late November when Honduras held a hotly-contested presidential vote between the right-wing incumbent, President Juan Orlando Hernández, and his leftist rival Salvador Nasralla. However, a fortnight later, there is still no clear winner between the two. Electoral authorities say that Hernández has an unassailable lead, but there is also substantial evidence of electoral fraud, including one episode in which a glitch shut down the main tallying computer for 36 hours. Beforehand, Nasralla held a five-point lead.

As a result of the bitterly-disputed elections, protests spilled over into the street last week, causing the government to declare a 10-day curfew and suspend constitutional rights. “The suspension of constitutional guarantees was approved so that the armed forces and the national police can contain this wave of violence that has engulfed the country,” Ebal Diaz, a senior Honduran minister said on December 2. On the same day, a teenage girl, Kimberly Dayana Fonseca, was shot dead by soldiers loyal to Hernández.

To make matters worse, it appears that the security forces are now beginning to split into rival factions. Last Tuesday, hundreds of members of the elite riot police unit known as the Cobras said that they were no longer willing to face down protesters. “We are rebelling. We call on all the police nationally to act with their conscience”, one masked officer told Reuters. Other police units around the country have reportedly followed suit to the elation of Hondurans. However, according to a recent report, the Army has now begun clearing the streets of barricades, and Amnesty International reports that at least 14 people have died in clashes.

But the U.S. response to the Honduran crisis has been completely contradictory. Just two days after the disputed election, the State Department sent a document to Congress certifying that the Honduran government was doing its best to fight corruption and support human rights, Reuters reported. This, in turn, clears Honduras to receive millions worth of aid, much of which — as the Intercept noted — is used to train and equip the same police and military units currently responsible for cracking down on protesters, and who have also been accused of chronic corruption. Meanwhile the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Honduras, Heide Fulton‏, tweeted a much more conciliatory statement about “restoring public trust in the electoral process.”

A State Department official said that the appropriations had been approved after a months-long review that was not related to the Honduran elections. The official added that, in their opinion, Honduras was making anti-corruption progress. “They have secured the convictions of multiple former public officials, including the former director of the Honduran Social Security Institute,” they said. “They have purged over 4,000 corrupt officers from the Honduran National Police.”

Honduras should matter to Trump and the Republicans because it is a country deeply-involved with two issues near-and-dear to their hearts: crime and illegal immigration. Two major criminal gangs, Barrio 18 and MS-13 — Republicans’ favorite new criminal boogeyman — are endemic in the country, contributing to Honduras’ sky-high murder rate and making it one of the most violent countries in the world, outside of major war zones. It was that violence which, in 2014, drove a record surge of unaccompanied minors towards the U.S. southern border.

But instead of pledging to support free and fair elections or stamp out corruption, the Trump administration seems content to sit back and allow a right-wing regime to slowly do away with the democratic process. This, despite warnings from think tanks that Hernandez “is making a strategic effort to consolidate the levels of the levels of government power, placing them within his personal grasp”.

Of course, this won’t be the first time that the United States has ended up backing a repressive, right-wing regime in Central America. From Noriega’s Panama to pre-Castro Cuba, U.S. policy in the region has historically evolved around supporting right-wing dictators in the region, often at the expense of their citizens. Honduras was even coined the original “banana republic” for the extraordinary influence the United States exerted over it.