Democracy 'lost': Rights groups warn of more violence in Honduras as US recognizes president

The OAS and 20 members of Congress have backed calls for a new election.

ByABC News
December 22, 2017, 4:06 PM

— -- The U.S. became one of a few countries to recognize Juan Orlando Hernandez as the president of Honduras Friday as the opposition candidate, international observers, members of Congress and human rights groups called for a new election amid reports of fraud. Thirty people have died in election-related violence since the Nov. 26 vote, in which both major candidates claimed victory, according to human rights groups.

The U.S. recognition comes after Honduras’ national electoral tribunal, known as the TSE, declared Hernandez the victor on Sunday, kicking off a five-day period during which the opposition can present evidence of fraud or irregularities that would nullify the result. The TSE's official results show Hernandez winning with 42.95 percent of the vote, compared to challenger Salvador Nasralla's 41.42 percent.

“We have not seen anything that alters the final result that the TSE has come out with,” a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters Wednesday, indicating initial U.S. support for Hernandez at the time.

Two days later, that support is now full-throated, with a congratulatory note from the State Department for Hernandez.

However, the U.S. conceded that there were “irregularities identified by the OAS [Organization of American States] and the EU [European Union] election observation missions” and called for “robust national dialogue” and a “significant long-term effort to heal the political divide in the country and enact much-needed electoral reforms,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.

Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla during a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Dec. 22, 2017.
Fernando Antonio/AP Photo

“Stability in political outcomes in any country really depends on [an] election process that produces a clear, accepted winner,” the senior State Department official said. “In this case, the TSE which has representatives of all parties on it, have worked through what they believe is a final and complete result.”

Nasralla, a former sports journalist and the Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship candidate who challenged Hernandez, denounced the State Department's decision in a televised statement today. Nasralla told reporters in Spanish that the decision to recognize Hernandez has made the U.S. "co-responsible in the human rights violations that the illegal regime of Juan Orlando Hernandez continues to commit."

"We are disappointed and reject the recognition on the part of the U.S. State Department because it signifies that with its weight in international relations, the U.S. opts to legitimize a regime that's been rejected by the people," Nasralla said.

"During our recent trip, we gave the data to the State Department and the observation missions, data and overwhelming proof of our victory by half a million votes -- which is not a narrow victory, like the State Department said in its statement ... sorry, but the person who wrote that statement has no idea. This was not a narrow victory, this was an armed robbery, the robbery of half a million votes," Nasralla continued.

The senior State Department official specifically said Nasralla “did not have any new fraud or evidence to present to us” in a meeting with State Department officials in Washington on Monday.

Dr. Luther Castillo, a Honduran physician, was part of a delegation of Honduran political and community leaders from the country who came to the U.S. this week to urge support for democracy. He said the delegation met with members of Congress, and representatives from the OAS and the State Department.

"Because of the situation that was happening back home, and the lack of information that was getting back to people in the U.S. or getting out to the press, we had to try to deliver the message of the Honduran people," Castillo told ABC News. "We are here looking for the solidarity of the American people for our people who have been repressed."

Military police clear a barricade set up by protestors supporting opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla, in the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Dec. 22, 2017.
Fernando Antonio/AP Photo

Nationwide protests against the results have been called for Friday, and Nasralla said people will continue to protest against Hernandez.

"I am sure that this fight is going to continue," Nasralla said. "I am sure that the people are not going to accept this injustice because they know if they accept this injustice, it will be the last one because there will be no more democracy here."

Street protests against the election results over the past several weeks have been met with repression from Honduran security forces.

Bertha Oliva is the general coordinator of the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), a human rights group that has worked in the country since the 1980s. She said the country is living a crisis not seen since the 2009 military coup, which ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. COFADEH has documented at least 30 protest-related deaths since the election, she said. Honduran police have confirmed 17 deaths, according to The Associated Press.

Supporters of presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, Salvador Nasralla, set up barricades to protest against the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, in Tegucigalpa, December 22, 2017.
Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

"In terms of human rights, we are living in a catastrophe," Oliva told ABC News in Spanish. "Today, which hasn't yet been a month since Nov. 26, more than 30 people have been assassinated. They have been killed by agents of the state, the military police, the armed forces, the national police. Aside from this, the quantity of people have been injured is a staggering number. People with legs broken, arms broken, with their skulls cracked.

"The majority of the people who have been killed have been young people," Oliva added.

Electoral observers, including a mission from the OAS, had reported widespread fraud, intimidation and irregularities during the Nov. 26 election.

Early on, Nasralla, 64, seemed poised to triumph over Hernandez in an upset victory. Authorities announced the morning after the polls closed that Nasralla was leading Hernandez by 5 percentage points. Then the vote-counting body stopped updating the public with the results, leading many voters -- and international observers -- to express concerns about transparency. Further delays in counting the votes contributed to voters' concerns about fraud, electoral observers from the EU said at the time.

The OAS said in a statement Sunday that the Honduran electoral process was “characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity.”

“Deliberate human intrusions in the computer system, intentional elimination of digital traces, the impossibility of knowing the number of opportunities in which the system was violated, pouches of votes open or lacking votes, the extreme statistical improbability with respect to participation levels within the same department, recently printed ballots and additional irregularities, added to the narrow difference of votes between the two most voted candidates, make it impossible to determine with the necessary certainty the winner,” the OAS said in its statement.

A file photo shows Honduran reelected President Juan Orlando Hernandez, taken on December 21, 2017, delivering a speech during the Honduran Armed Forces' command handover ceremony in Tegucigalpa.
Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

A letter sent to President Donald Trump on Thursday by 27 members of Congress urged the White House to “join the Organization of American States in calling for new elections, and to stand behind the right of the Honduran people to free and fair elections, in accordance with Honduran law.”

The letter added that the lawmakers were “alarmed at the actions of Honduran security forces,” who have “continued to fire live ammunition at civilians protesting electoral fraud.”

Twenty members of Congress also sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing their concern about the election results and what they said was his department's "inadequate" response to them.

"The Honduran people’s faith in their institutions was already weak before the election; the past weeks have further undermined that faith, and Hondurans have taken to the streets to express their anger and disillusionment. Most of the protests have been peaceful, but some have become violent. The government’s response has been disproportionate: Security forces have used live bullets against protesters, and they have killed at least 23 people to date," the letter reads.

"The department has called for protesters to refrain from violence but has failed to denounce the excessive use of force by Honduran security forces. Moreover, the department’s decision to certify Honduras shortly after the election has helped to foster the perception that the United States is biased, and is either unwilling or unable to serve as an honest broker," the letter continues.

But despite those concerns, the State Department ultimately chose to join Mexico and Canada, among others, as one of just a few countries that recognize Hernandez. Mexico's foreign ministry issued a statement Tuesday congratulating Hernandez on his victory.

The EU had previously expressed concern about irregularities in the voting process, but ultimately called the announcement of results "a significant step in a complex and uncertain process" in a statement Thursday.

On Wednesday, the senior State Department official said that since voters went to the polls Nov. 26, the "TSE of Honduras tried to work through the counting of the election results in as transparent a way as possible after having clearly had a problem with their servers that raised doubts about what was going on.”

But the opposition kept moving the goal posts in its criticism of the electoral process, the official added.

“The TSE, the OAS mission, President Hernandez's party, the government tried to reach an agreement with the opposition on a way to do a recount that it would participate in, and it consistently moved off of its position,” the official said, pointing to requests from the opposition to review 5,000 ballots, only to not participate in that process.

When the review was complete, the opposition started calling for a new election, according to the official.

Opposition supporters hold wooden crosses in front of security forces guarding the U.S. Embassy during a protest over a contested presidential election with allegations of electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Dec. 21, 2017.
Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

The close results have left Honduras bitterly divided. The Central American nation has historically been a close a U.S. ally, though it has struggled with one of the highest murder rates outside of a war zone in the world, as well as drug trafficking, gang violence, extreme poverty and human rights abuses. Hondurans have fled the country's drug- and political-related violence in a mass exodus to the U.S. in recent years. Trump is expected to decide the fate of 57,000 Hondurans currently living in the U.S. under the Temporary Protected Status program soon.

"The violence is due to the fact that this government, the government of the past eight years, has not generated employment opportunities for people," Nasralla told ABC News on Nov. 29. "They have two possibilities: They dedicate themselves to violence or they go to the United States. Many have the dream of going to the United States, and that's why they go."

That violence has been more severe since the election, Oliva said.

"In 2009, there was a military coup, today is another kind of coup with a much greater magnitude because it's creating the hopelessness among the people," Oliva said. "Hopelessness because people thought that democracy could be strengthened, and it's been lost. The human rights violations are massive. The losses the country have suffered are massive."

An opposition supporter holds up the Constitution of the Republic of Honduras during a protest over a contested presidential election with allegations of electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Dec. 22, 2017.
Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

There are other parallels to the time of the coup as well, analysts said. Hernandez ran for re-election after the constitution was changed to allow for it in 2015. The country's former president Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup in 2009 after he held a non-binding constitutional referendum. Oliva said Hernandez's consolidation of power, suspension of constitutional guarantees and enforcement of a curfew after the election amount to a dictatorship.

"They have used the legal system to imprison people. So we don't just have the killings, we have many people in jail. We have many people being persecuted, many who have left the country, many who are in the hospital. It's a precarious situation in the country right now, and it's about to become more precarious because a dictatorship is being consolidated. And a dictatorship disguised as a democracy is more dangerous than a dictatorship that has been declared," Oliva said.

Castillo said people will continue to take to the streets to demand democracy.

"We are fighting back home, we have to resist. This is about the future freedom of our country, this is about the future of our children. We are willing and committed to this struggle and our people will continue in the streets," Castillo said. "We are very clear about what the State Department's position is, but we are also clear about what our position is as defendants of the people."