Web Only / Act Locally » November 26, 2009
Can a military dictatorship hold ‘free’ elections in Honduras?
'People are afraid. Most of the people aren't voting, but they're also afraid to stay at home,' said Gilda Velasquez, director of Refuge Without Limits
TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS—Elections in Honduras are set for Sunday, Nov. 29, but the ongoing human rights crisis–sparked by the military-backed coup last June–has both locals and international experts wondering if a free, transparent ballot vote is even possible.
“We are living under a military dictatorship,” said presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes, in an exclusive interview with In These Times. “There is no historical precedent for successful elections under a government like this,” said Reyes, who was third in the polls and the anti-coup movement’s preferred candidate until he pulled out of the race last week. “In a system like this one, there are no constitutional guarantees. Everything is up to the whims of the dictator. Given the situation, I had no choice but to step down.”
And Reyes isn’t alone. Dozens of other candidates have dropped out of the race, and human rights groups have warned that the Honduran military may use the elections as an excuse to unleash violence on the general public in order to maintain their grip on power.
“As elections near, we expect the violence to increase,” said Andres Pavon, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH). “That is the only way this government can enforce its authority.” Last week, Pavon issued a press release saying CODEH had received a tip that the military was planning to dress soldiers up in civilian clothes on election day, and initiate a massacre of unsuspecting congressmen. Their intention, said Pavon, was to “discredit the resistance,” as well as to provide an excuse for canceling elections.
“The plot was revealed to us by a high-level contact within the Honduran armed forces,” said Pavon, although he would not name his source. “Many top generals are afraid of being blamed for the coup, once a civilian government is elected. That’s why they want to stop the vote. Even if they must kill to do so.”
Anatomy of a police state
President Mel Zelaya–who was ousted for proposing democratic reforms that angered Honduras’ traditional, ruling elite–snuck back into the country on September 21, and has been holed up since then in the Brazilian Embassy. A U.S.-brokered peace accord, signed by both sides in late October, fell through just a few days later.
Since then, the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate. According to CODEH, more than 10,000 peaceful, anti-coup protesters have been beaten or detained, and at least 26 people have been killed by authorities since the coup. (The Committee for the Families of Disappeared Persons in Honduras has corroborated the fatalities.) Hundreds more have been seriously injured, as police and soldiers have frequently attacked unarmed demonstrators with chemical weapons, rubber bullets and even live rounds.
“Our country suffers, and yearns to reverse the coup d’état,” said Margarita Zelaya Rivas, the vice-presidential running-mate of Elvin Santos, who is currently second in the presidential polls. “The Constitutional president is a prisoner in the Brazilian Embassy, while a dictator runs the country,” said Rivas. Last week, she too announced her withdrawal from the race, “for the sake of dignity, bravery, and democratic principles.”
Pushing for recognition
For its part, the de facto government continues to assert that no putsch took place, that Zelaya was removed legally, and that elections will come off without a hitch.
“There will be more than 600 international observers for the elections,” said Secretary of Congress Carlos Lara Watson, during an interview at the Presidential Palace. “The government of the U.S. will recognize our vote. The government of Canada will too–and so will the government of Panama,” Watson said.
Others are less excited. Many Hondurans believe the U.S.-backed peace accord was built to fail, and some don’t think that was an accident.
“[U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Thomas Shannon is guilty of setting the trap for Zelaya, as is [U.S. Ambassador to Honduras] Hugo Llorens,” said Honduran Congressman Marvin Ponce, a member of the Democratic Unification Party. “The U.S. State Department helped to create a conflict in Honduras…if there is still no solution, it’s still their fault.”
Elections under martial law?
With the critical vote just a few days away, experts are predicting record lows in turnout, in large part due to the oppressive nature of the de facto regime.
“People are afraid…Most of the people aren’t voting, but they’re also afraid to stay at home,” said Gilda Velasquez, director of Refuge Without Limits (ASL) a sister group to CODEH. Velasquez said she’d heard from many people near the capital who worried that police and soldiers might “come and take them out of their houses, and force them to vote.”
Velasquez also pointed out that the de facto regime had already set about disarming the populace, confiscating even legally licensed firearms. “Conservatives usually want people to have guns,” Velasquez said. “But not these conservatives.” A native of Tegucigalpa, Velasquez said that independent radio and television stations in the capital have been censored in the days leading up to the election, and that mass arrests have become common in the barrios surrounding the capital.
“Free and fair elections cannot be administered through the barrel of a gun,” wrote Dr. Adrienne Pine, a Honduras expert with American University in Washington, D.C., in response to emailed questions. “No amount of rhetoric about democracy can cover up the thousands of human rights abuses including torture, rape, arbitrary detention, assassinations and collective punishment being carried out by the de facto regime.”
Dr. Pine also pointed out the conflict of interests inherent in having the Honduran armed forces oversee elections. “Freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press have been suspended, [and] civilians are attacked by the military on a daily basis,” Pine wrote. “The idea that elections could be free or fair under such conditions is patently absurd.”
‘Protect the oligarchy’
“We will have 2,000 police, and at least 2,000 soldiers, patrolling the capital at all times during the election,” said Tegucigalpa Police Commissioner Martinez Madrid, during a cell phone interview. “We’ll have squads stationed outside of every voting center,” Madrid said. “We’ve got everything under control.”
But top resistance leader Rafael Alegria disagreed. “These elections are a disaster,” Alegria said, speaking in front of the Electoral Tribune building earlier this week. “The whole process is illegal,” he said. “That’s why most of the international community won’t recognize it.”
As Alegria spoke, a peaceful but animated anti-coup demonstration was going on across the street, the protesters carrying a small forest of crosses, each marked with the name of a resistance member who had been killed by the authorities since the coup. Alegria looked at the crowd, nodded, and then looked behind him, glancing over the ranks of heavily-armed soldiers and police that guarded the entrance to the Electoral building.
“A violent outcome to the elections is very possible,” said Alegria. “But the bombs only come from them. They are the ones who bear arms against us… I don’t want to insult anyone, but it’s completely possible the [putschists] will sabotage the electoral process, simply in order to remain in power.”
Former Presidential candidate Reyes echoed Alegria’s concerns, saying he believed the de facto government’s only intention was “to protect the oligarchy…and annul the possibility of Constitutional reforms.” The current Constitution dates from the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of the early 1980s. On the day Zelaya was kidnapped by the military, the first popular referendum in Honduran history had been scheduled to take place.
“They should be allowing us to vote not just on our president, but also for the Constitutional Assembly,” said Velasquez, referring to the non-binding opinion poll that cost Zelaya the presidency. “But of course that’s not allowed. [The de facto regime] wants to normalize the coup. That’s what elections are for, of course.
“[T]he coup-installed government is like a cancer we can’t get rid of,” Velasquez said. “Even if it looks to be gone, the bad cells will still be there.”
Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.