End of a Narcostate?
Joe Biden has a Central America problem. Countries that turned reliably neoliberal after the ‘small wars’ of the 1980s have become unwieldy again. After sixteen years of neoliberalism, Nicaraguans returned Daniel Ortega to power in 2007 and re-elected him this month in a vote which Biden dismissed as a ‘pantomime’. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019 with Trump’s blessing, has been described as a ‘narcissistic dictator’ by a senior Democrat because of his growing authoritarianism, secret deals with violent gangs, making bitcoin legal tender and fostering links with China. Riding high in opinion polls, he now calls himself ‘the world’s coolest dictator’.
In Honduras, Biden’s problems stem from the period when he was vice-president and the mildly reforming President Zelaya was ousted in a military coup. Neoliberal government was restored, but the corruption and drug-trafficking created a narcostate, led since 2014 by Trump’s confidant Juan Orlando Hernández. When Hondurans voted to end JOH’s mandate in 2017, the US ensured that a rigged result kept him in power.
JOH is finally standing down as Hondurans go the polls again on Sunday. His security in retirement depends on the National Party retaining control so he can avoid extradition to the United States, where his brother has been condemned to life imprisonment for drug-trafficking. The party’s candidate, Nasry ‘Tito’ Asfura, currently the mayor of Tegucigalpa, is under investigation for the alleged embezzlement of $1 million. He is likely to protect JOH if he wins.
He may well lose, however. Until last month, the National Party’s core vote of about 20 per cent looked sufficient to give Tito victory, but two opposition parties have since united. Salvador Nasralla, who should have won the last election, gave way to Xiomara Castro and the last poll put the new alliance on 38 per cent.
Biden would ideally prefer a result that curbs the narcostate, but he’s unlikely to want that to come from a Castro victory. The co-ordinator of her Libre party is her husband, Mel Zelaya, the victim of the 2009 coup. Castro has carefully avoided any impression of radicalism, but while she appears to have won trust among the electorate she is unlikely to have won Biden’s. In a move suggesting heightened US concern, it nominated a full ambassador to Honduras after five years without one.
The election period has already been marked by violence, with the deaths of around thirty congressional or local candidates, mainly from opposition parties. The perpetrators are unlikely to face the law. In the case of Honduras’s most notorious political murder, the killing of Berta Cáceres in 2016, only one of those who commissioned the crime has been convicted and he has still not been sentenced. Cáceres’s daughter Olivia Zúniga, a Libre congresswoman standing in the election, was almost murdered in October when four men broke into her house and tried to strangle her. Fewer than 3 per cent of Hondurans are said to recognise the country as a ‘full democracy’.
Hundreds of fake Twitter accounts have spread authentic-looking lies about Castro; fake opinion polls appear alongside real ones; 300,000 voters still don’t have the identity cards they will need at polling stations; police seized a ‘Molotov cocktail’ factory run by gangs planning to disrupt the voting; a shoot-out during a Liberal Party rally left at least one person dead; a presidential candidate hostile to JOH was arrested along with his wife and mother-in-law; Asfura received a ‘climate positive’ award COP26 in Glasgow despite being closely associated with deforestation and attacks on environmentalists.
In the year since Biden was elected president, the number of people apprehended at the Mexican border has reached a record high of 1.7 million. A fifth of them came from Honduras. The narcostate is also a failed state. It failed to deal with the pandemic and has Central America’s highest Covid death rate. It failed to respond to two major hurricanes last year, with many people still left homeless. Seven in ten households live in poverty despite $20 billion supposedly being devoted to tackling the problem since the last election (after publishing the poverty figures, the national statistics institute hurriedly deleted them).
Even conservative media in Honduras are now proclaiming Castro’s likely victory, but many people still expect another rigged election. That could lead to massive demonstrations which, as in 2017 when at least 24 people died, would be violently repressed. Biden would have a compliant partner in Asfura but he would still be running a narcostate. And many more Hondurans would head for the Rio Grande.