Youth mobilization challenges election fraud in Honduras

Salvador Nasralla marches with protesters

Salvador Nasralla, the presidential candidate for the opposition in Honduras, marches with protesters on December 10. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The anger and frustration in the streets of Honduras following the controversial November 26 presidential election is palpable. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the electoral process, which was marked by accusations of fraud carried out by the incumbent president of Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party.

In Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula, small groups of semi-truck drivers have “Fuera JOH,” or “get rid of Juan Orlando Hernández,” written on their mud flaps or posted in the windows of their vehicles. When I was staying in the city center, the silence of the night was broken with loud chants of “Fuera JOH” from the streets.

The accusations of fraud sparked the widespread movement against Orlando Hernández. Hondurans have carried out weekly marches through the major cities that have drawn hundreds of thousands across the country. According to Jesus Garza, a Honduran political and human rights analyst, these marches have been among the largest in the country’s history.

Many of these marches are organized by the opposition political party La Alianza Contra de la Dictadura, or the Alliance Against the Dictator, led by former president Manuel Zelaya, but Garza points out the vast majority of actions — including the establishment of roadblocks on major roads across the country — are spontaneous.

In almost weekly actions protesters have blocked over 80 points along the highways with burning tires across the country. These actions have been met with intense repression from the military, in coordination with the national police.

These actions have remained largely peaceful, but several incidents have turned into street battles, with small groups of protesters throwing rocks at police and military. Organizers claim that these are more than likely infiltrators from gangs. They fear that this could justify the escalation of the situation and more repression.

Faced with the growing unrest, the Honduran government declared a state of siege on December 1 that suspended the constitution and established a curfew between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. for 10 days. Yet the angry population refused to accept the curfew, and the government was forced to shorten it, before retracting the state of siege altogether on December 7.

At least four people were killed on the first night of the siege. According to the human rights organization Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, over 30 people have been killed by Honduran state security forces since the crisis began.

But in spite of the threat of state repression, the youth of Honduras have maintained their opposition to the burgeoning dictatorship in Honduras.

On December 8, thousands of frustrated Hondurans carrying torches marched through the streets of Tegucigalpa to the U.S. embassy to call on the United States to help defend their democracy.

Youths chant with torches outside the U.S. embassy.

Youths chant “Fuera JOH” outside the U.S. embassy on December 8. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The march was organized in part by Los Indignados, or The Indignants, a group of youths that began to organize following the 2013 election of Juan Orlando Hernández to challenge corruption and violence in Honduras.

Protesters were encouraged by organizers to tweet using the hashtag #IDontWantToLeaveMyCountry to Donald Trump’s personal account ahead of the march. Many youth are forced to leave Honduras due to the rampant violence and lack of opportunity. Their situation grew especially worse following the 2013 election of Orlando Hernández.

Protesters ripped down National Party campaign signs as they marched down Morazán Boulevard. Once the march arrived at the embassy demonstrators burned the signs in a symbolic rejection of the administration.

Two days later tens of thousands marched again to the U.S. embassy. This march was organized by the Alliance Against the Dictator. The protesters were accompanied by Salvador Nasralla, the presidential candidate for the party, and former president Manuel Zelaya. The pair addressed the crowd during a standoff with military police, where they denounced the fraud in the November 26 presidential election and the silence of the international community.

Messing with the wrong generation

Both of these marches included massive participation by the country’s youth. This generation is at the heart of the movement.

Most young people in Honduras have grown of age in the eight years since a coup d’état ousted democratically-elected president Zelaya. This generation has seen a drastic decline in their opportunities, as well as an increase in violence. According to Warren Ochoa, a congressional candidate and youth coordinator for the LIBRE party, at least 800,000 new young voters registered to participate in the election.

“This part of the population is the group that suffers most in the country,” Ochoa said. “There are 1.6 million people unemployed. Over 50 percent of all murders are of youths. This is the population that is most repressed and that sees the least benefits of the system.”

Orlando Hernández’s four years in office, which began in 2014, were marked by the rapid increase in foreign direct investment in key sectors, as well as the privatization of the infrastructure, including highways and the national energy company. The same period was marked by a rapid increase in violent crime.

“This process that the National Party has overseen since the [2009] coup has been a disaster,” Ochoa said. “Poverty has increased. So too has extreme poverty. There are people living on less than two dollars per day. This system that has produced new riches has not produced benefits for the majority of the population.”

The movement is spreading and mobilizing thanks to social media and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. These tools have provided a means of countering the national media, which has largely ignored the causes of the growing unrest.

“The people are using the social networks,” said Meicke Bautizo, a 27-year-old activist and human rights defender from Tegucigalpa. “They are not just using them to pass the time, but rather to inform themselves.”

Nasralla and former president Manuel Zelaya shake hands in front after addressing the marchers on December 10. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The movement has built on the foundation laid by earlier social organizations and the popular movements of the 1980s, which failed due to the systematic repression brought against them using counterinsurgency tactics.

“There was a lot of repression in the 1980s, and they threw in the towel,” Bautizo said. “But when [the right-wing] carried out the coup d’état against Mel [Zelaya], it all changed. They began to question why this president who had lowered the cost of electricity, lowered the cost of transportation, and increased the minimum wage, was removed in a coup. So people began to re-politicize themselves.”

According to Bautizo, the youth began to become more politicized following the election of Orlando Hernández in 2013.

This occurred at the same time that student groups began to organize for the democratization of the student union at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Bautizo and the others from Los Indignados worked closely with students to improve their political awareness and teach them tactics that moved away from just fighting the police.

“We managed to work with the students to teach them that [the movement] was more than just throwing stones [at the security forces],” Bautizo said. “All of these youths were injected in the student movement during this political crisis. The social problems were increasing, and so too was the lack of confidence with the system.”

The origins of the crisis

The current crisis in Honduras began following the presidential election on November 26. Many argued that Orlando Hernández’s quest for reelection is illegal, as the Honduran constitution bars any president from even mentioning a second term. Yet Orlando Hernández sought a change in the constitution, and won a victory in the supreme court that permitted him to discuss a second term.

The opposition faced an uphill battle against the incumbent president, who had won his first election amidst allegations of fraud.

Early results from the Supreme Electoral Council, which oversees the electoral process, showed that opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla was leading Orlando Hernández, but this lead quickly disappeared after an error with the computers.

The initial results that put Nasralla ahead of Orlando Hernández were supported by Luis Zelaya, the candidate from the Liberal Party.

Late in the evening on December 17, the electoral council officially declared that Orlando Hernández won the election, guaranteeing that the protests will only intensify. These results were supported by the the European Union, which had overseen the elections to guarantee transparency. The Organization of the American States, on the other hand, called into question the results.

“There are no conditions to affirm that the winner is one or the other, and this shows that this process has been affected by marked irregularities and deficiencies,” the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said in a press release. The statement ended by calling for a new round of elections. The opposition too has decried the results and called for further protests.

The police rebel

The movement against the alleged fraud has found an unlikely ally in their movement.

On December 4, the elite anti-riot police within the Honduran National Police known as the Cobras, announced that they were refusing to comply with orders to enforce the curfew, as well as their orders to repress the people. The heavily armed unit made this declaration to the press from their barracks in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

“The reason for our position is we cannot repress the people,” one masked Cobras officer told Heather Gies from Upside Down World. “This isn’t a political issue, but yes we are with the people because it is unjust what is happening.”

The police denied that their action was a labor strike, but said that it was taken because of their desire for peace in Honduras.

Yet shortly after the declaration, the elite unit entered into negotiations with the administration of Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa. The state sought to end what they perceived as a strike in order to get their elite unit back on the streets.

“A small example of this systemic crisis that we are facing is the rebellion of the police,” Ochoa said. In comparison, Ochoa points out that the healthcare sector has maintained an eight-month strike to improve work conditions, but they have not received a response from the administration of Orlando Hernández.

“Supposedly the state did not have the funds to pay them,” Ochoa said. “But when a force that represents the power of the state [stopped working], the government arrived at an agreement with them within 24 hours. This is the behavior of a military regime.”

Honduran military prepare to confront protesters

Honduran military prepare to confront protesters at the roadblock in Villanueva on December 15. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Following the negotiations the unit returned to the streets, but they maintained that they were only there to guarantee that order was maintained during protests. Despite the agreement — that included a pay increase for the police — protesters still see the unit’s declaration as a sign of solidarity with the movement. During one march on December 10, protesters showed their support for the unit by shaking their hands and patting them on the back as the protesters marched through the streets of Tegucigalpa.

“This was a rebellion from the lower rungs of the ladder,” Ochoa said. “They had received their orders to repress the people, but they found their families on the other side of the barricades. They found themselves in the middle of this contradiction. The state found that they did not have all the control.”

It’s not over

Following the electoral council’s declaration of Orlando Hernández as president, the opposition called for maintaining its mobilization, and the population has once again responded by taking to the streets to decry the fraudulent election.

There have been daily protests, including marches through the major cities, as well the establishment of new barricades. On December 21, tens of thousands marched through Tegucigalpa once again to the U.S. embassy to demand that they denounce the election fraud.

“The government is betting that the people are going to tire of being in the street,” Garza, a Honduran political and human rights analyst, said. “But the people are angry, and they have not grown tired yet. The protests will continue through Christmas. The situation continues to be very intense, but so too is the response of the popular mobilization.”

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