THE Washington Post
Latin America has been a relative exception to the global retreat of democratic government in the past decade. Apart from Venezuela, where an autocratic regime presides over an imploding society, and Nicaragua, where onetime revolutionary Daniel Ortega has evolved into a caricature of the corrupt caudillos of old, most of the region has stuck with free elections - and seen healthy alternations of power. Seven nations had presidential elections scheduled for the year beginning in November, and six more are due in 2019.
Two developments in the past week, however, suggest that the trend might not hold. In Bolivia, populist Evo Morales induced the Supreme Court to rule that he could run for a fourth term in office in 2019, despite a constitutional limitation of two terms that was upheld in a referendum last year. In Honduras, rightist president Juan Orlando Hernández, who also benefited from a questionable Supreme Court ruling allowing his reelection, appeared poised to claim victory following a problematic count of last week’s vote.
The case of Honduras is particularly troubling, as the poor nation of 9 million people has been a prime way station for drugs trafficked to the United States as well as refugees. In his first term, Hernández made some progress on these problems, cutting what was one of the world’s highest murder rates nearly in half and extraditing a dozen drug kingpins to the United States. He won friends in Washington, reportedly including Gen. John Kelly, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.
Hernández has done much, however, to erode Honduras’s political institutions, which were already battered by the 2009 attempt by leftist President Manuel Zelaya to entrench himself in power. Zelaya was removed by the Supreme Court and military, but Hernández succeeded by orchestrating the installation of four new Supreme Court justiceswho would rule in his favor. He appeared to be cruising to victory in the Nov. 26 election. But the first results showed the incumbent trailing Salvador Nasralla, a television personality backed by Zelaya.
There followed a suspicious chain of events. The vote count suddenly slowed to a crawl; when new results were announced, Nasralla’s margin had shrunk dramatically. On Monday, the final tally showed Hernández winning by 1.6 percentage points. Nasralla’s supporters meanwhile had taken to the streets, prompting the government to impose a curfew; at least one demonstrator has reportedly been killed by police.
The crisis instigated by Zelaya eight years ago provoked robust interventions by the Organization of American States and the Obama administration and eventually led to internationally monitored presidential elections. Observers from the OAS followed last week’s vote, as well; their representatives are now pressing the government to allow a transparent review of the vote count.
What’s missing is the United States. Normally the U.S. ambassador plays a powerful role in Tegucigalpa - but the Trump administration has nominated neither an ambassador to Honduras nor a State Department assistant secretary for the region. State was quick to criticize the power grab by the leftist Morales, but on Honduras it has been circumspect, leading some to suspect the administration is content to see Hernández retain power by any means. That would only encourage the destabilization of Honduras, along with more attempts to subvert democracy in the Western hemisphere.