Friday, 22 November 2013

HONDURAS: Presidential Election & Challenges

Hondurans will vote Sunday, Nov. 24, in a presidential election that polls suggest is too close to call. U.S. interests are plainly at stake, but this has less to do with the individual who may end up being elected than with the legitimacy of the election itself and how the new president, once in office, chooses to govern.

In what should be a clarifying and unifying election, the electorate instead is polarized, and at least three of the leading candidates are each convinced they will win. Official results may not be known for a week or more after the election; irregularities cannot be discounted. Whoever wins will likely receive less than a majority of votes and may face an opposition-held legislature, perhaps hindering the new president’s ability to address pressing concerns, including crime, corruption and a looming potential fiscal crisis.

Even before the forced removal in 2009 of President Manuel Zelaya—the husband of current populist candidate Xiomara Castro—and the democratic elections later that year that brought outgoing President Porfirio Lobo to power, Honduras faced significant difficulties.

The country is one of the poorest in the Americas. The illegal drug trade, Honduras’ long, under-populated and largely ungoverned coastline and the lack of effective policing capabilities have made the country a magnet for cartels. The country is now among the most violent on earth. Job growth is insufficient to absorb the thousands of new job-seekers that enter the workforce each year. Corruption is rampant. The devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch are still felt 15 years on.

That’s why most in Washington would simply prefer to ignore Honduras’ troubles. U.S. interests in Honduras, however, remain significant. It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States travels at some point through Honduras. The United States is Honduras’ top trade partner and aid donor; legitimate bilateral trade is more than $10 billion per year. Top Honduran exports include textiles, electronics, bananas and coffee, the last of which is under attack from coffee blight and competition from Vietnam. An estimated 700,000 Hondurans in the United States send almost $3 billion home each year in remittances.

In addition, though the Cold War is long gone, the legacy of the 1980s-era Central American wars continues to be felt throughout the region. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent since the end of those conflicts to support democracy and economic opportunity and to aid recovery from natural disasters. The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has expanded trade and investment as it was designed to do, but Central America itself has not taken full advantage of the agreement. Democratic institutions are fragile and governance must be improved. And, complicating matters significantly, Venezuelan assistance has been plentiful in support of presidential candidates, parties and governments willing to promote the anti-Washington vision of the late Hugo Chavez.

These are not easy issues, and they have no easy solutions. Nonetheless, a number of steps can be taken to bring the United States alongside the Honduran people with a vision for mutual engagement and support over the longer term.

In the first instance, as U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel told the Council of the Americas recently, the burden is on Washington to persuade Central Americans, by means of both words and deeds, that the U.S. does not have a finger on the electoral scale and that it will work with whoever is elected, whether Xiomara Castro of the new LIBRE party, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the ruling Nationalist Party, Mauricio Villeda of the traditional Liberal Party or someone else.

The corollary is that electoral irregularities from either side—and meddling from others on the outside—must be rejected. And the victor should be expected to govern according to the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which Honduras signed in 2001.

Still, the election itself will not solve the country’s deep difficulties, which Hondurans themselves must meaningfully address. The United States, working with allies including Mexico and Colombia, should be prepared to assist. In the first instance, the U.S. must look for new ways to extend region-wide efforts to improve personal security and reduce the corrosive impact of the narcotics trade, including by imposing restrictions on the U.S. export of small arms and ammunition. Comprehensive immigration reform by the U.S. would directly assist Hondurans, and other countries in the region.

The proactive export of abundant natural gas from the United States should be explored as a means of reducing production costs and improving the region’s clean energy profile. Trade policy should seek to shield Central America from any potential damage resulting from other initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which may disadvantage the region despite CAFTA. There will be a need for the international community to assist Honduras in addressing looming fiscal problems. And a strong stand for democratic institutions and the rule of law will offer the best hope for long-term growth and stability, while re-emphasizing the historical U.S. commitment to the region.

These issues require time and resources, and success is not guaranteed. So it was in helping to birth Central American democracy in the first place. But Washington has a long and favored relationship with Honduras, and the voice of the United States carries particularly far with Tegucigalpa if projected from senior-level officials. As Hondurans head to the polls, this legacy and the reality of Honduras’ pressing post-election agenda are too important to ignore.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP--Honduras President Porfirio Lobo -Photo