Honduras on edge ahead of presidential election

Fernanda is making unusual preparations for Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras: stocking up on provisions.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re worried about running out of food,” said the teenager, queueing with her father outside a supermarket in the capital Tegucigalpa and hoping to buy two weeks of supplies. “We’re scared it could be a mess.”

Last time Hondurans voted in presidential elections, in 2017, it sparked mass protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces that resulted in the death of more than 20 people. Not everyone expects a repeat, but the uncertainty has some who can afford it preparing just in case.

This time the front runners are leftwing Libre Party candidate Xiomara Castro and Nasry Asfura, mayor of the capital Tegucigalpa, running for the incumbent rightwing National Party. At stake is the stability of a Central American state that has one of the world’s highest murder rates and has been plagued by corruption and drug trafficking. Every year, thousands leave Honduras to head north to the US, creating a huge foreign policy headache for the US.

Looming large over the polls is the outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who won a disputed second term in 2017 after a contentious court decision to allow his re-election.

Hernández, who first took office in 2014, has been named by the US as an alleged co-conspirator in a US drug trafficking case in which his brother was jailed this year. Hernández allegedly took bribes from narcotraffickers and said he would “stuff drugs up the gringos’ noses”. He denies the allegations.

In recent years, the Central American nation has had some of the world’s highest murder rates, mass emigration and a lacklustre economy that does not create enough jobs.

The run-up to Sunday’s poll has shown the divisions in the country. At least 29 people have been killed in election-related violence, according to the UN Human Rights Office.

“I am deeply worried by what we are witnessing in Honduras,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The elections are yet to take place but political violence is already at disturbing levels.”

Xiomara Castro, leftwing Libre Party candidate, delivers a speech © Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

Conservatives fear Castro would try to set up a hard-left government aligned with Venezuela and Nicaragua. Her supporters dismiss that and instead say they want to halt damage done by more than a decade of National Party rule, particularly in Hernández’s most recent term.

Hugo Noé Pino, who was co-ordinator of Castro’s government plan, believes she could begin to change the desperation that so many Hondurans feel. “An unscrupulous group of people with very high levels of corruption and links to drug trafficking took over . . . the government,” he said. “The separation of powers is gone . . . the elections open the possibility of a change.”

In his campaign, Asfura has focused on infrastructure improvements and creating jobs. He has used the slogan “Daddy is different”, seeming to distance himself from Hernández.

The candidate running third in the polls, whose Liberal party might feasibly hold the balance of power in Congress, is Yani Rosenthal, who recently served a three-year US prison sentence for money laundering for drug traffickers.

Rosenthal said he made a mistake and has learned from it. None of the top three candidates responded to interview requests.

Political links to drug trafficking do not help Honduras’ image with foreign investors, analysts said.

“It’s a burden that doesn’t let you attract a lot of investment or allow you to bring quality investment,” said Ricardo Castaneda, senior economist, and co-ordinator for Honduras at think-tank Icefi. “While there is still that fear that it is a narco state, it’s really going to be difficult to change that.”

Investment is badly needed. Honduras’ economy shrank 9 per cent last year during the pandemic. Almost one-quarter of gross domestic product comes from remittances, which are mostly sent by Hondurans in the US.

The country has the second-highest poverty rate in Latin America and the Caribbean after Haiti, according to the World Bank. The lack of jobs and violence push hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to migrate each year.

Almost 320,000 Hondurans were encountered by US law enforcement at the southern border in fiscal year 2021, equivalent to more than 3 per cent of the country’s population.

Juan Carlos Sikaffy, head of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council (Cohep), said business wanted to move forward. “We in the private sector aspire to wake up on November 29th and be able to open our industries and businesses,” he said. “We need to generate a new narrative for the country to be able to attract investment.”

In the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, some of the workers at an industrial park — many of whom make less than $15 a day — doubt Sunday’s election will bring positive changes. “Given how things are I think all of us think about [migrating], seeking other horizons,” Edwin Orellana, 20, said.

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