Amid a deepening electoral crisis in Honduras, the administration of President Donald Trump on Thursday certified the country's progress in protecting human rights and attacking corruption.
The move comes nearly two restive weeks after a presidential election, but Hondurans still do not know who their next leader will be. President Juan Orlando Hernandez narrowly leads in the vote tally, but has not been declared the winner. His challenger, Salvador Nasralla, alleges fraud.
Troops and police units, some trained by U.S. forces, are patrolling the streets of the capital and have been accused of killing and wounding demonstrators after Hernandez declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and suspended some constitutional rights to tamp down pro-opposition protesters.
If accepted by U.S. congressional appropriations committees, the certifications by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would ensure that Honduras receives millions of dollars in U.S. funds that are conditional on progress in human rights and corruption.
Human rights defenders in Honduras were stunned by the certification.
"We were really surprised that in the middle of this crisis the State Department comes out with this kind of statement when the government of Honduras is not meeting the conditions," said Carlos Sierra, a security and human rights investigator with the Center for Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights in Honduras. "It came right in this institutional and political crisis."
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hernandez said Wednesday that he appreciated the U.S. certification.
"That determination signifies a very important message," he said, "and reflects how they (the U.S.) are seeing Hondurans."
The certification affects only half of the U.S. funds that go directly to Honduras' central government, which amounts to between $15 million and $20 million, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Other U.S. assistance is unaffected by the certification process.
Leahy said the certification conditions are important to send a message that U.S. aid is not a blank check.
"We expect our own government to hold them accountable," he said. "The certification just received, in the midst of an election debacle that has triggered a political crisis, requires careful scrutiny by the Congress."
As vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, Leahy could put a hold on all or some of those funds, but the senator has not decided how to respond to the certification and wants to discuss it with the State Department, his office said.
While the certification was published Thursday in the Federal Register, Tillerson signed the memo recommending it on Nov. 28, two days after the election.
Nasralla had held a five-point lead in the electoral court's first partial results when the count stalled for some 24 hours. When results resumed, his lead gradually diminished and then disappeared entirely. He alleged fraud and called his supporters into the streets.
An election monitoring team from the European Union released a preliminary report on Nov. 28 criticizing the electoral tribunal's poor communication about the delayed results. By the end of the week, security forces and protesters began to battle in the streets.
The Honduran Committee of Detained and Disappeared Relatives said Wednesday that it had documented 14 deaths related to protests or the curfew between Nov. 30 and Dec. 5. It blamed the vast majority on military police. The government has said only that it is investigating the killing of a 19-year-old woman in Tegucigalpa, allegedly by police.
Carlos Reyes, a union leader, also denounced the certification.
"It is almost like they want to say what is happening is false," he said Wednesday. "They're practically giving carte blanche so that they can violate human rights in this country under the umbrella of the United States."
The United States has funneled money into Honduras in large part to train security forces so they can better participate in the war on drugs. Honduras is a major transshipment point for cocaine moving toward the U.S. But it also funds development work aimed at stanching the flow of Honduran migrants to the U.S.
In the certification memo, the State Department lauded some of the work being undertaken by an anti-corruption mission from the Organization of American States to bolster Honduras' justice system. It also noted that an official commission has purged some corrupt and unqualified members of its national police force.
"Challenges in protecting human rights defenders remain, but Honduras continues to take effective steps," the memo said.
But human rights groups point to the country's general lack of safety, which in addition to foreign migration has created a large population of internally displaced people. While the murder rate fell considerably under Hernandez, gang violence remains a major threat.
They also note the continued vulnerability of human rights and environmental activists who have had to seek refuge in other countries.
There is no U.S. ambassador in Honduras; the Trump administration has yet to appoint one. The Embassy's charge d'affaires, Heide Fulton, has made no public remarks related to the certification. An Embassy spokesman said Thursday "she is focused on the current political situation, as you might imagine."
Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the CIA in Honduras, criticized Tillerson for the endorsement of a government that he said has not done enough to protect human rights and for making it during a political crisis.
"I know how these things work; certifications are written a month before they're published," Armstrong said. "I know that it's a complex dance. But it's not unheard of that you hold off if a crisis is rising."
"It's truly cynical of him (Tillerson)," Armstrong added, complaining that Washington had remained silent "since this historically abnormal — even for Honduras — election and vote count and repression of the opposition."
"To remain silent only leads to the most cynical interpretation of what the certification is about: Juan Orlando is an SOB but he's our SOB."
Garance Burke reported from San Francisco and Martha Mendoza from San Jose, California.