Intelligence Brief: Elections in Honduras

Posted in United States | 13-Dec-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

Manuel Zelaya, center, president-elect of Honduras, speaks during a news conference after officially winning the elections in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005.

In the first of the wave of a dozen presidential elections to be held in Latin America during the next 12 months, voters in Honduras gave the Liberal Party of Honduras (P.L.H.) candidate Manuel Zelaya a narrow edge over his National Party of Honduras (P.N.H.) rival Porfirio Lobo Sosa in November 27 polls. The relatively peaceful and orderly vote was preceded by a campaign marked by vituperative rhetoric and insults from both sides, and was followed by a delay in tallying the results -- explained by computer problems -- that dragged on for a week and precipitated a confrontation between the contending parties that only ended on December 7 when Lobo Sosa conceded defeat.

Analysts are closely watching the unfolding election cycle in Latin America to determine whether it will confirm a shift to the left in the region that has already brought Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay into a grouping that challenges the U.S. plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (F.T.A.A.), Washington's strategic dominance of the Western Hemisphere and the "Washington Consensus" on economic policy that promotes market reforms at the expense of regulation and the social safety net.

The vote in Honduras shows that any supposed shift in Latin American political sentiment must be tempered by the specific domestic situation of each country and, most importantly, by the position of each country in the hemispheric balance of power which is determined by the face-off between the North American power center led by the United States and the South American power center led by Brazil.

In Honduras, the bitterly contested campaign did not reflect a partisan divide based on ideological and policy differences, but evinced a conflict of traditional political, regional and personal loyalties. Both candidates mixed extravagant populist rhetoric with consistent commitment to the market model and to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (C.A.F.T.A.), which is Washington's instrument for maintaining its economic dominance in Central America. The basis for the similarity of the two candidates' approaches is the dependence of Honduras on the United States, which effectively blocks any leftward political shift, even under the condition of popular discontent over economic problems.

Trapped Honduras

Honduras is a country that is trapped in its past by its economic weakness and its consequent dependence on the U.S. for markets, investment and economic aid. With a population of 7.2 million, Honduras has 1.2 million unemployed, which translates into 53 percent of its people living below the poverty line and one of the widest wealth gaps between rich and poor in the world.

The country has not yet recovered from the devastation to its agricultural sector caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, is in the midst of a wave of violent crime -- some of which is fueled by "maras" (gangs that originated among Central American migrants to Southern California) that are engaged in the illegal drug and arms trades -- and is still feeling its way out of a period of military rule that ended two decades ago, but the effects of which still linger. [See: "Central America's Street Gangs Are Drawn into the World of Geopolitics"]

With an agricultural economy that remains dominated by large landowners, a small manufacturing sector directed toward the domestic market and an underdeveloped infrastructure that hampers the exploitation of its mineral resources, Honduras has become economically dependent on remittances from 800,000 to one million emigrants in the U.S., and on the "maquila" factories that import textiles and manufacture apparel, mainly for U.S. companies. Sixty-nine percent of Honduran exports go to the U.S., which is also the largest donor of foreign aid to the country. American businesses provide 44 percent of Honduras' foreign direct investment, concentrated in the maquila sector, which is threatened by cheaper Asian producers, and banana plantations.

Given its economic dependence on the U.S., Honduras has been Washington's most reliable Central American ally, allowing its territory to be used for training camps and staging bases for Washington's clients in the Central American civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s. The U.S. currently maintains a small military presence in Honduras devoted to counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, disaster-relief and civil-affairs missions. Honduras contributed a token force to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which it has since withdrawn, and has been a firm supporter of C.A.F.T.A. Acquiescing in the disciplines of the Washington Consensus, Tegucigalpa has received Washington's support for debt relief and has qualified for grants under Washington's Millennium Fund, which makes aid contingent on market reforms.

The combination of economic weakness and dependence has frozen Honduras' politics into a pattern that was set in the early twentieth century, pitting nominally conservative and liberal parties -- both representing the country's economic elite -- against one another. At their inception, the parties were genuinely divided on the issue of clericalism, but, as that issue faded, they have become factions of the elite vying for spoils. Both candidates in the November election are large landowners who gained their support -- particularly in rural areas -- on the basis of traditional regional loyalties and the influence of local notables. Although Honduras experienced a leftist insurgency in the 1980s, it was smaller than those in neighboring countries and its legalized remnants have not been able to form an effective party.

The Election

The stasis of Honduran politics was demonstrated by the presidential campaign, in which both candidates made promises to alleviate the conditions of the poor while focusing on the issue of fighting gang crime. Lobo Sosa said that he would create 600,000 new jobs, offer 200,000 scholarships to improve access to education, provide universal health care, grant 850,000 families title to land and initiate irrigation projects. Zelaya promised job training, educational reform, a downsizing of the state bureaucracy, "civil assemblies" to monitor government, a guarantee of food for the poor and 400,000 new jobs. Having stated those positions, the candidates, both of whom hired top advisers who had worked in U.S. presidential campaigns, proceeded to narrow the campaign to the clash between Lobo Sosa's proposal to institute the death penalty for serious crimes and Zelaya's defense of life sentences along with job training to reduce recruitment into the maras.

In light of Honduras' economic conditions, it is unlikely that Zelaya will be able to make good on his promises of poverty reduction or to curb the crime wave. His narrow victory of 49.9 percent of the vote to Lobo Sosa's 46.2 percent was attributed by local analysts to a marginal public fear that Lobo Sosa was veering too much in the direction of restoring the harsh repressive tactics that had characterized authoritarian P.N.H. rule in the 1930s and had carried over into post-World War II military dictatorships and the counter-insurgency of the 1980s. Zelaya was perceived by the swing voters as the candidate more sensitive to social concerns, but there was little public optimism that the P.L.H.'s campaign slogan -- "Urge to Change" -- would consummate in results. The turnout of registered voters was only 40 percent.

The Bottom Line

Weak and dependent, Honduras is likely to remain firmly in Washington's fold.

During the uneasy period when vote counting was delayed, Lobo Sosa initiated a meeting between himself, Zelaya and U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford. Although Washington was thought to have favored the P.N.H. and its hard line, the discussions probably paved the way for Lobo Sosa's concession. Washington calculated that Zelaya, who had named his cabinet before the final tally was in, was a better guarantor of stability than Lobo Sosa, who had mobilized a demonstration in Tegucigalpa of 3000 of his supporters to protest the announcement by Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Zelaya's victory, based on a partial count. Outgoing P.N.H. President Ricardo Maduro had also urged restraint on Lobo Sosa "in order to avoid a tragedy," indicating a coordinated effort to smooth the transition.

The first of Latin America's presidential elections has confirmed the extant hemispheric power balance, with Washington maintaining its dominant influence in Honduras. In the absence of a credible populist movement, Honduran politics is likely to remain trapped in the past, with disaffection continuing to flow into cynicism.

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