TEGUCIGALPA – For many Hondurans, Sunday’s election will be about stripping power from a party whose successive administrations are widely seen as having deepened corruption and driven tens of thousands to flee the country, many toward the United States.
Expelling President Juan Orlando Hernández's National Party after 12 years is more important to them than who takes power when it's gone. The animosity toward Hernández is such that for several years, migrants walking out of Honduras have chanted “Get out J.O.H.!” referring to his initials.
Complaints against Hernández and his party are multiple. An already difficult life has gotten even harder for many. Honduras was hit by two devastating hurricanes in 2020. The pandemic raised unemployment to 10.9% last year, according to the National Statistics Institute. The economy shrank by 9%, according to the World Bank. And street gangs rule swaths of territory through terror.
Hernández has also become a national embarrassment. U.S. federal prosecutors in New York have accused him of running a narco state and fueling his own political rise with drug money. Hernández has denied it all and has not been formally charged, but that could change once he leaves office.
And many believe Hernández isn't legitimately their president. A friendly court sidestepped the constitutional ban on reelection and Hernández won a 2017 contest filled with irregularities that nonetheless was quickly recognized by the Trump administration.
So the National Party's candidate in Sunday's election, Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, has faced significant headwinds as Hernández’s chosen successor.
Honduran prosecutors also accuse him of diverting more than $1 million in public funds to personal use, but the Supreme Court has put the case on hold until a sort comptroller court investigates.
Try as he might, Asfura hasn’t been able to shake Hernández’s stigma. At a recent rally in Tegucigalpa, Asfura pleaded, “I am different.”
The National Party's strength is its ability to distribute benefits and mobilize voters, including some 200,000 government employees, and Asfura is still in the race. Whichever of the 14 candidates gets the most votes Sunday wins; there is no runoff.
Polls give Xiomara Castro the best chance of beating Asfura. This is Castro’s third try. She lost to Hernández in his first run and then dropped out in 2017 when she joined the coalition backing television personality Salvador Nasralla, who this year dropped out to back her.
The 62-year-old candidate of the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party is the wife of former President Jose Manuel Zelaya, who had aggravated both the U.S. and Honduran establishments by building close ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was ousted by the military in a coup in 2009. Officials justified his ouster by alleging he planned to violate the same constitutional ban on reelection that Hernández later ignored.
He too has faced corruption allegations. When a Honduran drug trafficker was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in 2019, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said he had paid millions in bribes to government officials, including $2 million to Zelaya, an accusation Zelaya denied.
Castro's campaign has focused on the need to remove the existing power structure, and tying Asfura to Hernández at every opportunity.
“They call Honduras a narco state because of this mafia that governs us and because of which they also say we’re the most corrupt country in Latin America,” Castro said at a recent campaign event. “This is the moment to say enough of the misery, the poverty and the exclusion that our country experiences now.”
For years, the U.S. relationship with Honduras has been governed by Honduras’ willingness to cooperate in the war on drugs as a key transshipment point for cocaine headed north and in helping to stem migration?. But U.S. prosecutors have shown that while the government was assisting in interdiction, its politicians were benefitting from drug proceeds and helping protect other shipments, most notably in the case of former lawmaker Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the president’s brother, who was sentenced to life in prison in the United States.
The Biden administration has continued to struggle with Central American migrants arriving at the Southwest border, many of them from Honduras. Vice President Kamala Harris has said corruption in the region as one of the key problems driving that movement.
According to the Vanderbilt University’s Americas’ Barometer Pulse of Democracy 2021 report released this month, more than half of the those polled in the nation of 9.3 million expressed a desire to live or work abroad — 30 percentage points higher than in 2004.
In addition to president, Hondurans will elect a new congress and their representatives for the Central American Parliament.
Luis Vásquez, a 43-year-old systems technician in Tegucigalpa, said he was underwhelmed by all of the candidates.
“There isn’t an option of proposals that we can trust; it’s just more of the same,” he said. But he was sure his vote would not go to the National Party, “because of the high level of corruption it has shown.”
Sherman reported from Mexico City.