Honduras’ Presidential Election Is a Choice Between Uncertainty and Ruin


On Nov. 28, Hondurans will head to the polls for one of the most consequential elections in the country’s history. After the 2017 polls were marred by fraud and violence, voters face a stark choice between a corruption-plagued ruling party that has enabled Honduras’ transformation into a violent narco-state on one hand, and an uncertain future on the other.

The main opposition candidate, Xiomara Castro of the progressive Liberty and Refoundation Party—or Libre, as it is known in Spanish—will try to break the National Party’s 12-year stranglehold on power. The wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a coup in 2009, Castro lost the 2013 presidential election to the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez. She was also Libre’s presidential candidate in 2017, but she stepped aside when her party formed an alliance with the center-left Innovation and Unity Party, then led by Salvador Nasralla. Though widely believed to have won the 2017 election, Nasralla was denied the presidency amid widespread irregularities. Castro will face National Party candidate Nasry “Tito” Asfura, a former lawmaker and incumbent mayor of the capital, Tegucigalpa. Asfura is currently under investigation for allegedly embezzling more than $1 million of municipal funds. 

Castro has gotten a boost in recent weeks, as nearly all of the main opposition parties have thrown their support behind her campaign. Nasralla and his current party, the National Opposition Union or UNO, got behind her on Oct. 13, as did Luis Zelaya, the 2017 candidate from the centrist Liberal Party, who conceded to Nasralla at the time and also demanded that Hernandez concede. Other opposition parties then followed suit in shifting their support to Libre. Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal, who recently completed a prison term in the United States for laundering drug money, is trailing in the polls, making it virtually a two-horse race. 

With Castro needing only a simple majority to win, opposition supporters hope that a united front might be able to rally enough support to deny Asfura the presidency. Recent opinion polls indicate their gambit may be working. In one survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Democracy, a local research institute, Castro leads Asfura by a substantial margin of 38 to 21 percent. Asfura had been narrowly leading in most opinion surveys before the majority of opposition parties announced they would unite. 

Yet while the recent poll is good news for Castro, it also underscored the alienation and disillusionment of the Honduran electorate. Only six in 10 eligible voters said they planned to participate; half said they expected there to be serious fraud. More than 40 percent said that if election fraud occurred again, they anticipated a repeat of the mass protests that rocked the country in the wake of the 2017 contest. 

This month’s election may well be one of the most consequential in Honduran history. The country has been mired in a cycle of problematic elections, corruption and violence since the 2009 coup that removed Zelaya from office shortly before the end of his term. Since then, the Honduran state has suppressed dissent through a variety of means, often violent. Journalists, teachers, environmental activists, human rights advocates and members of the political opposition have been killed with impunity. Since December 2020, dozens of party activists and candidates for national and local office have been assassinated, most of them members of Libre. 

The frequency of attacks on opposition figures has spiked in the lead-up to the election. In mid-October, Libre mayoral candidate Nery Fernando Reyes was shot dead in the town of Yusguare. Hours later, Olivia Zuniga, a Libre party lawmaker who is also the daughter of assassinated Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres, survived an attempt on her life when hooded men entered her home and attacked her. Later in the month, the journalist and former Libre candidate for congress Riccy Moreno also survived an assassination attempt while she was driving in the northern city of San Pedro Sula. 

This month’s election may well be one of the most consequential in Honduran history.

On Nov. 13, two Libre politicians were shot dead in separate incidents: Luis Casana, a Libre candidate for councilman in the town of San Luis, in the Santa Barbara department, and Francisco Gaitan, the mayor of Cantarranas. Casana had been participating in a Libre campaign rally with Castro when he was gunned down.

In addition to such rampant political violence, the breakdown of the rule of law that accompanied the 2009 coup has profoundly weakened the state’s institutions and contributed to the exponential expansion of corruption and impunity. While Honduras had been a cocaine transshipment point for decades, it has devolved into a narco-state under National Party rule. Politicians at all levels of government, from small town mayors to the president himself, allegedly utilize state resources to facilitate the transport of cocaine.

In July 2021, the U.S. State Department announced that former President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who won the 2009 elections, and his immediate family were prohibited from traveling to the U.S. due to their involvement in “significant corruption.” His son, Fabio, was sentenced to 24 years in U.S. prison after pleading guilty to federal drug trafficking charges in 2017. Hernandez, the incumbent president, has been identified as a co-conspirator in multiple drug trafficking cases in U.S. federal court. In 2019, his brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez was found guilty of trafficking drugs and arms. Evidence and testimony during the trial demonstrated that not only did Hernandez use members of the Honduran military and police to facilitate the drug trafficking, but that millions of dollars of drug money helped finance National Party campaigns in 2009, 2013 and 2017. In March 2021, Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in a U.S. federal prison.

It is not the first scandal that Juan Orlando Hernandez has faced. In 2015, thousands of Hondurans from a broad cross-section of society took to the streets across the country to protest a massive corruption scandal involving millions of dollars that were allegedly embezzled from the country’s social security institute. Demonstrators, known as indignados, organized weekly torch-lit marches. Their efforts ultimately resulted in the creation of an independent commission, the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras—known by its Spanish acronym, MACCIH—which was backed by the Organization of American States but was still far weaker than what protesters demanded. MACCIH ceased operations in January 2020 after Hernandez and the OAS failed to reach agreement on the terms of its renewal. 

Massive protests also followed the fraud-tainted 2017 elections, as thousands turned out into the street for months. In response, state security forces killed dozens of demonstrators. Mass unrest that broke out again in 2019, in response to plans to privatize education and health care institutions, were again met with a heavy-handed response. Any hint of electoral fraud on Election Day later this month elections will likely trigger further mobilization.

Thousands of Hondurans have fled the country since the 2009 coup, many in response to violence and corruption. A Castro victory could offer some hope for addressing Honduras’ ills, though old elite networks are deeply entrenched. Castro, who is a self-described democratic socialist, has proposed rewriting the constitution and establishing a new anti-impunity commission modeled on the now-defunct, United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, also known as CICIG. If she wins, she will also have to tackle other serious challenges, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and two hurricanes that struck the country this year, not to mention growing public debt, dire poverty and the impacts of climate change—none of which will be easy without a congressional majority. 

Whether Castro can or will be allowed to win remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Honduras can scarcely afford to continue down its current ruinous path. 

Christine J. Wade is professor of political science and
international studies at Washington College. She is the author of
“Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador,” and co-author
of “Understanding Central America: Global Forces and Political Change,”
among other titles.



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