World News

US Backs Honduran President’s Victory in Disputed Election

Posted December 22, 2017 9:40 p.m. EST
Updated December 22, 2017 9:42 p.m. EST

MEXICO CITY — The U.S. government recognized President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras as the winner of last month’s disputed election on Friday amid angry protests by Hondurans who believe the vote count was fraudulent.

The decision by the State Department offers support to an ally who has cooperated on issues that concern Washington in Central America — including stemming the flow of illegal drugs and migrants to the Texas border.

Honduras has shown its loyalty elsewhere. It was one of only eight countries to vote with the U.S. on Thursday against a resolution at the United Nations denouncing President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The State Department said in a statement that “we congratulate” Hernández, but added that “a significant long-term effort to heal the political divide in the country and enact much-needed electoral reforms should be undertaken.”

The conservative Hernández was a highly polarizing figure in Honduras as he amassed power over many of the country’s weak institutions during his first four-year term.

One of them was the country’s electoral commission, which reported on election night that the main opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, was ahead before the electronic count stopped for a day and a half. When it resumed, the trend reversed direction to favor Hernández, and he was eventually declared the winner by about 50,000 votes.

“When you have an election that is very close, you have to trust the judge,” said Miguel Calix, the Honduras representative for the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, a pro-democracy organization backed by Dutch political parties. “And the problem is that nobody trusts the judge.”

But with Hernández winning only a plurality in the multiparty election, the result has prompted widespread street protests that have turned deadly.

“The people are indignant and they are rising up,” said Edmundo Orellana, a former attorney general and constitutional law professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. “The intensity of the protests will not fall.”

An election observer mission from the Organization of American States concluded on Sunday that there were so many irregularities and deficiencies that it was impossible to be sure of the winner. Luis Almagro, the organization’s secretary-general, called on the Honduran government to schedule a new election.

In a statement on Friday, Almagro’s office warned that ignoring the observer mission’s report would set a “dangerous precedent” ahead of elections scheduled across the region in 2018.

Both the alliance backing Nasralla and the opposition Liberal Party have asked for the results to be annulled.

Nasralla traveled to Washington this week to seek support, but he appeared to acknowledge that his fight was over on Friday, admitting that he had “no confidence” in the effort to have the result voided.

Although large demonstrations have been peaceful, in some areas people have blockaded roads, burning tires and tree branches in protest. Security forces have used tear gas and live ammunition in response.

Late this week, police officers and soldiers were deployed in large numbers to clear blockades set up by protesters in the capital and the north of the country.

A statement Wednesday from human rights experts at the U.N. and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that at least 12 people had been killed. Hundreds more have been detained at military installations, where they have been “brutally beaten,” the statement said.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said in a statement Friday that he was “angry and deeply disturbed” by the State Department’s recognition.

“Very few Hondurans have confidence in the results, and the country remains deeply polarized,” said McGovern, who was among nearly 50 lawmakers who signed letters urging the United States to back the position of the OAS. “For the U.S. government to pretend otherwise is the height of blind folly and it will surely harm our influence and undermine our priorities throughout the region.”

The State Department acknowledged that the close result and the flaws identified by the OAS and another observer mission from the European Union “underscore the need for a robust national dialogue.”