Spike in protests a symptom of deeper issues in Honduras

Spike in protests a symptom of deeper issues in Honduras

On 17 December, Honduras’ electoral tribunal declared incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner of the presidential elections. Resulting allegations of electoral fraud and public protests are however signs of deepening political instability.

In Honduras, a country already affected by widespread corruption, crime and poverty, this means increased risks for investors and businesses, while prolonged instability will fuel deep-seated issues such as migration and drug-related crime.

Civil unrest likely to persist

Controversy and unrest resulting from Honduras’ latest presidential elections are the symptoms of a climate of political instability affecting the Central American country. Initial counts on 26 November – the day of the election – suggested a victory for Hernandez’ main opponent Salvador Nasralla, from the centre-left coalition Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship. However, on 10 December, the electoral tribunal stated that a partial recount of the votes showed current President Juan Orlando Hernandez as the winner, while Nasralla supposedly won 31.5 percent of the votes. Country-wide protests and civil unrest followed these results.

The situation is likely to deteriorate in the immediate term. Salvador Nasralla already expressed his intention to hold mass protests against the election results, suggesting that frequent instances of political violence will take place during the upcoming months. So far, key transit roads and assets have been affected by protesters, who put roadblocks in place and attacked local businesses.

Since last Sunday, the Organization of American States (OAS) already called for new elections, after Nasralla met US State Department officials and the head of OAS to denounce electoral fraud. Moreover, the results were met with anti-government demonstrations across the country, especially affecting urban areas such as the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. At least 17 people lost their lives as a result of these clashes.

Similar instances of violence could turn into a trend: the opposition may in fact use street protests as leverage in order to obtain political concessions. Such compromises may include new elections or Cabinet appointments that are favourable to the opposition. The frequency and violence of such protests, however, will depend on whether the opposition and the incumbent government can successfully engage in negotiations.

Failure to address endemic challenges

Honduras’ political stability also has regional repercussions. The Central American country is in fact among the largest sources of illegal immigrants to the United States, fueling the ongoing migration and humanitarian crisis. While the election results are unlikely to be a major cause of migration, an unstable government will once again fail to address Honduras’ endemic challenges such as the lack of economic opportunity, poverty and drug trafficking.

In this regard, Hernandez’ achievements as a President are controversial. On the one hand, his tough-on-crime stance made him popular amongst many Hondurans, who give him credit for the reduction in the country’s crime rate since 2014, when he came to power. Specifically, he passed effective measures such as dismantling criminal structures, reforming the national police force, increasing anti-crime resources, reforming the national penal code and allowing extradition from Honduras to the United States, which reduced drug trafficking to the country. The positive effects of such initiatives are already showing: Honduras’ crime rates have halved compared to last year’s.

On the other hand, crime rates in the country are still among the highest in Latin America and plans to address the root causes of the crisis such as poverty and unemployment, and to attract foreign investment and diversification of the Honduran economy, are yet to come to fruition. Furthermore, rather than stopping drug trafficking, Hernandez’ policies have led to the creation of new routes, now affecting other countries in the region, such as Mexico, El Salvador and Jamaica.

Honduras and the United States: a lasting partnership

Nevertheless, the recent political developments will not change the fact that Honduras is an important ally in the United States’ fight against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. Indeed, the country is a significant transit point for the smuggling of cocaine to North America as well a source of mass migration. The current government has shown a zero-tolerance approach against drug trafficking and considerably strengthened border control capabilities and budget. This trend will most likely continue under Hernandez.

Since 2009, the Central American country received nearly $114m in US aid to strengthen law enforcement capabilities, enforce border security and anti-drugs operations. Given such strategic interests, therefore, very limited intervention is to be expected from Washington. So far, the current administration has indeed been cautious to comment on electoral fraud allegations, suggesting that little will change in their relationship.

Categories: Central America, Politics

About Author

Benedetta Di Matteo

Benedetta obtained a LLM degree in International Laws from Maastricht University, specializing in Public International Law and International Relations. Benedetta worked as an open source analyst for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based political risk firm, focusing on political and security trends in Latin America. She also completed a traineeship at the Council of Europe's Economic Crime and Cooperation Division. Benedetta focuses on international security issues, including transnational crimes.