Nov. 20, 2013, 11:18 a.m.
With the November 24 presidential and parliamentary elections just around the corner, experts gathered at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday to discuss the candidates and the implications of the upcoming vote.
Roger NORIEGA, former Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs and current Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, addressed the election’s regional context. According to NORIEGA, Central America, and Latin America more broadly, has recently been plagued by two negative trends – a resurgence of populist politics and a resurgence of the caudillo strongman. These related trends have been embodied by the rise in popularity of charismatic, Leftist presidents who ally with each other (through the Bolivarian Alliance) and usually with organized crime as well, to consolidate power and pursue harmful ideologically-driven economic policies. In Honduras, this strongman was President Manuel ZELAYA, who was ousted in a military coup in 2009 but who is widely believed to be behind his wife’s candidacy for President. NORIEGA sees these presidents less in ideological terms and more as individuals who seek to subvert the rule of law and benefit from narcotrafficking instead of strengthening their countries’ democratic institutions. According to NORIEGA, the Honduran elections and the Salvadoran elections in February represent an opportunity to reverse this trend.
The current election in Honduras is the first in the country’s modern history in which the two major parties, the National Party and the Liberal Party, will face significant contenders. This means that the winner will likely receive a plurality, but not a majority, of votes. The last opinion poll indicated that Juan Orlando HERNANDEZ (National Party) has a slight lead over Xiomara CASTRO de Zelaya (LIBRE Party), with Mauricio VILLEDA (Liberal Party) and Salvador NASRALLA (Anti-Corruption Party) trailing but with significant support. While HERNANDEZ has been criticized for using his party’s control of government to manipulate state institutions in his favor, including the illegal replacement of key judicial figures with political allies, CASTRO has been accused of seeking to replace the country’s constitution if elected, an endeavor that led to the coup against her husband.
Ambassador NORIEGA also addressed some of the issues currently facing Honduras. One of the most pressing concerns the new President will have to address is the soaring homicide rate. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras’s homicide rate is a whopping 85.5/100,000 (2012), far higher than most conflict zones. The high homicide rate has been exacerbated by a recent surge in criminal gang activity as well as Honduras’s status as a major transshipment point for drug trafficking. Honduras is seen as especially attractive to narcotraffickers due to its weak institutions, lacking rule of law, and strategic location between South American producers and the American market. Thus far, the Honduran political elite has utterly failed to improve ineffective and corrupt police departments or to reform unaccountable and partisan public institutions. Eric OLSON, Associate Director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center, explained how these issues extend to the electoral cycle as well, with a politically-influenced electoral tribunal and lack of campaign finance regulation contributing to political apathy (59% of Hondurans expect a fraudulent election). The cozy relationship between many politicians and the drug cartels has further compounded the problem.
At stake in this election is the future of Honduran democracy and regional stability. If the new Honduran President proves uncommitted to the rule of law, narcotraffickers will continue to operate in an environment of impunity, the reach of authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela will continue to spread, average Hondurans will face diminishing political rights and economic opportunities, and the United States will lose important trading partners. The United States, for its part, must engage with Honduras, El Salvador, and others in the region to signal its commitment to helping these countries strengthen their capacity to govern and root out endemic corruption and violence in order to build more peaceful and prosperous futures for their countries.
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