Honduras: a Setback for Women’s Rights

Honduras went into its general elections in a state of high tension. The country has come out of the Nov. 24 vote with tensions even higher.

A lot was at stake. The nation hasn’t had a truly democratic process to select a president since the election of former president Manuel Zelaya in 2005. Since Zelaya was kidnapped in a coup d’état on June 28, 2009, the coup regime has governed the nation with an iron hand through the period of the de facto regime and later a one-sided election organized by coup leaders and boycotted by democratic forces. As a result of four and a half years of coup rule, political polarization meets economic inequality in the nation to form a volatile mix of desperation and repression.

Human rights & democracy, from a gender perspective

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal reports the final count in Honduras’ presidential race at 36.89 percent for ruling National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez and 28.78 percent for Xiomara Castro of the recently formed Liberty and New Foundations Party (LIBRE). This a major upset considering most polls showed Castro in the lead up to just weeks before the vote.

But the process is not over. Opposition parties, including LIBRE and the new Anti-Corruption Party, are demanding a fair recount and review. As students hit the streets in protests over alleged fraud, the post-electoral climate is marked by conflict and uncertainty.

Shortly before the elections, an international group of journalists and human rights defenders joined with Honduran women activists to travel to Honduras to monitor respect for human rights, and in particular women’s human rights. We had good cause to be concerned. At least nine women human rights defenders have been assassinated under the coup and post-coup regimes, with 119 attacks registered in 2012 by the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative. Femicides have skyrocketed to 258% in a context of both general and targeted violence. We feared increased violence in the run-up to the elections.

The premise is that human rights cannot be supported in a non-democratic society and democracy cannot develop in a climate of human rights violations, such as Honduras’. The International Observatory of Women’s Human Rights and Resistancefound that neither fared well in the recent elections. As more than 90 observers fanned out throughout the country to report on the process and accompany women’s organizations, we found coercive conditions surrounding voting and serious doubts regarding the process and results.

Although the elections were carried out in relative calm and with a high turnout, the night before Maria Amparo Pineda Duarte, a human rights defender and campesinoleader of Cantarranas in the Francisco Morazán Department, was murdered alongside fellow organizer and opposition member, Julio Araujo. The double murder of political targets sent an ominous signal.

Our mission, like many others, identified numerous violations of democratic principles. The first and most widespread was vote buying. In one polling place we visited in Tegucigalpa, we spoke with a young woman in tears. She had been discovered photographing her vote and been expelled. She showed us a text message offering her employment for voting for the National Party candidate and explained that she was unemployed and had no source of income. Many observers reported similar incidents, including cash payments right outside polling places.

In a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and 65 percent are indigent, it’s easy to manipulate need. In the days leading up to the elections, the National Party delivered thousands of “benefits cards” to impoverished voters. The back of the card identified the holder as a party supporter.

Another major problem regarded the voter lists. Many voters who appeared as dead on the lists were refused their right to vote. Other reports showed that at some stations, the “dead” were allowed to vote and real voters were rejected for other reasons.

The Honduran army by law is charged with guarding polling places and transporting election materials. The armed forces are closely tied to the coup political factions, especially the National Party. Their presence in the ballot boxes was reported as a factor of intimidation. As one LGBT activist told us, “The 2009 elections were held at the point of a bayonet and these are the same.” Certainly, the presence of armed soldiers looked intimidating to us, and given the very recent history of the military coup and more distant history of military dictatorships the imagery to Hondurans must be even more powerful.

The official delegations of the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) reported that the elections were transparent. When we witnessed the vote counting, with most parties and many observers present, the process indeed appeared straightforward and this coincided with reports from other delegations. Honduran ballots are hand-counted at thousands of polling places, tallied and scanned in to the authorities.

Where the discrepancies have emerged, according to opposition parties, is in the transmission of results. LIBRE presented complaints that hundreds of tally sheets registered by the Tribunal do not match the results counted at the voting place. This part of the process was invisible to most, if not all, foreign observers.

Now both Hernandez and Castro claim victory.  The two contending candidates personify the political poles of the country. Hernandez was president of the Congress that opened the door wide to transnational corporations, ceding lands long held by indigenous and campesino inhabitants, consolidated the power of the official party over political institutions, and reversed historic—although modest—advances in women’s rights and wealth distribution. He calls himself the candidate of militarization, promising a “soldier on every street corner” and has said repeatedly that he will do “anything necessary” to bring security to the nation, despite that in many cases security forces themselves—under the command of his party—have been identified as the perpetrators of violent acts and rights violations against the population. Hernandez was the driving force behind the creation of a new and largely unsupervised Military Police.

The National Party came to power in the elections organized by the coup regime, elections so questioned that the government led by the proclaimed winner Porfirio Lobo was not recognized by the OAS until nearly two years later, as a result of an agreement with ousted president Zelaya. The United States government promoted and supported the boycotted 2009 elections and the Lobo government from the outset.

Xiomara Castro became a prominent public figure in the resistance when her husband, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped and then trapped in the Brazilian Embassy during the coup regime. She supports a constitutional assembly, the popular demand that detonated the coup, and demilitarization of civil life. Many members of the resistance to the coup joined the new party and supported her candidacy, following a major debate within their ranks. For most feminists, the fact that Xiomara is a woman was less important than her political platform and commitment to women’s issues. There, they generally found more room to advance their causes than with a conservative National Party candidate.

While the elections cracked open the traditional two-party system with nine parties participating, which means that whoever is the victor has a weak mandate of barely a third of the vote. The National Congress—where PN has 48 representatives, LIBRE 37, the Liberal Party 27 and the new Anti-Corruption Party 13, along with a handful of others—will have to be the scene of political deals to function at all.

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What’s in play in these elections is not just the person and the party that will govern the next four years but the future of one of the most violent and impoverished nations on earth. For women, who often bear the brunt of trying to feed families, defend their homes and lands from forced displacement, and stand up for human rights, the scenarios do not look bright.

Under the regime of Porfirio Lobo, repression grew and by 2013 more than 200 opposition members had been assassinated. Poverty, militarization, violence and violence against women also grew.

Since the coup, Honduras has gone through a period of resistance and repression.Campesinos, workers, feminists, students, indigenous and citizen organizations and LGBT groups kept up resistance in the streets in defense of democracy every day for months. While the coup against the elected president Zelaya became a model for the international rightwing against progressive governments, the resistance also became a model for the world, demonstrating a capacity for continuous mobilization, and civic valor, and combining in an unprecedented way demands for gender justice and women’s rights with the demand for a return to democracy.

The new regime severed the solidarity agreements Honduras had with the Venezuelan government under ALBA and consolidated control by the elite. Extreme poverty increased 26 percent during Lobo’s term. The government and private sector launched an offensive against the land and resources of indigenous andcampesino communities and urban barrios, where their refusal to give up led to violent attacks against them. The government initiated radical new strategies of land grabs such as the “model cities” program that cedes sovereignty of entire regions to transnational corporations. It offered massive concessions for mining, water, energy and other resources and has not been implanted anywhere else in the world.

Fights to defend resources and territories have been met with violent crackdowns by private security personnel and allied state security forces, and by the criminalization of grassroots leaders. Berta Caceres, leader of the Civic Council of Popular and indigenous organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and a leading figure in the defense of land and women’s rights, is one of a growing number of movement leaders arrested on trumped up charges and facing prosecution.

The ruling elite that has so far come out triumphant in the elections has major interests riding on maintaining control. Political control means more economic gains—for them at least.

Honduras also has geopolitical and economic significance to the U.S. government and transnationals, especially because since 2009 it represents the opportunity to implant new strategies of resource and land access. As happened when Honduras became a staging ground for the cold war, it now plays the role of pilot project for a new phase of corporate looting. Since the coup, an experiment began that seeks to deliver resources to international investors at whatever social cost and often at the point of a gun. The US government, having orchestrated the coup leaders’ continued hold on power by promoting the 2009 elections without reinstating the constitutional order first, has consolidated and expanded its military presence in Honduras.

The main vehicles have been the expansion of the base at Soto Cano and military-police operations in the name of the drug war.  The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other militarized forces have spread throughout the country, resulting in human rights violations and even massacres, such as the Ahuas case—a DEA operation in which four native Honduras including two pregnant women and two minors were shot from a State Department helicopter; the joint military Operation “Martillo“ has been extended indefinitely.

What next for women’s rights and grassroots organization?

The result of the vote is still in doubt and protesters have hit the streets, to be met with tear gas and billy clubs. Among members of grassroots organizations, the elections have provoked some soul-searching regarding the use of elections and political parties to express democratic aspirations.

As in other movements, among Honduran women’s organization opinions are divided. Many had doubts about investing the hopes for social change in the electoral process. They also were wary of politicians and parties—even with a candidate who came out of the resistance although not out of grassroots movements. The Honduran party system has a long history of negotiating interests from above.

Some also doubted whether the right would accept an adverse outcome, arguing that the right didn’t stage a coup d’état just to give up power in elections. Many viewed the belief in the elections as a way to remove the forces of the coup from power as naive. On the other hand, others saw the elections as a viable way to break the power of the right and advance the agenda of social movements, especially the constitutional assembly and defense of land and rights.

Current scenarios look bleak for movements in the short term. The first is that the Electoral Tribunal and other institutions, stacked by the right in power and supported by shadow powers, sponsor a full recount that favors the center left and subsequently recognize that result. This is extremely unlikely. The vote difference of more than 200,000 does not anticipate a reversal under any circumstances.

A second scenario would be the negotiation of power quotas within Congress and the cabinet between the ruling party, LIBRE under the leadership of former president Zelaya, and other parties that have filed complaints. The Anti-Corruption Party and Liberal Party already seem to be involved in this kind of negotiation and LIBRE leaders could join in. In this scenario, LIBRE in alliance with other parties could become a counterweight to the ruling party in Congress enough to make it difficult to govern for the new president and even perhaps block some of the most controversial measures. It could, however, leave grassroots movements out in the cold.

Another scenario is that the combination of repression, attrition and internal division causes opposition demonstrations to wind down, as the Tribunal throws out complaints of fraud and irregularities banking on support from rightwing institutions and the international community. In this case, the new government may not even have to negotiate concessions to opposing forces and the more centric forces in the system will simply align with the rulers.

In any of these scenarios, the movement comes out weakened and disappointed, at least in the short term. Juan Orlando Hernandez’s proposals to reinforce the use of armed forces in police tasks, to weaken labor rights and conditions, and to cede territory and resources to transnational investment spell more trouble and violence for human rights defenders. His religious fundamentalism, as seen election night when he dedicated his electoral triumph to “God, who names and removes all leaders in office” means more attacks on women’s rights and the LGBT community, and the continued power of the church in a state that is rapidly losing its secular standing.

The results of the elections create a military and transnational dictatorship that leaves us with a negative outlook for the defense of human rights and greater vulnerability for women human rights defenders,” stated Daysi Flores of the Honduran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders and JASS Mesoamerica.

Gilda Rivera of the Center for Women’s Rights noted a need for the movement to retrench and do some honest assessment. “The social and popular movement must break out of its isolation, link up more and define its resistance strategies, but we also have to recognize that the social and popular movement and women within it have few resources and there are real weaknesses in leadership.”

Faced with these complexities, although grassroots movements will continue to press for clean election results, many urge going back to where they came from—the streets, the barrios, the villages and the communities.

Berta Caceres told us shortly after the elections, “What we have to do in this country is to keep up the fight, reinforce all our strategies of emancipation, decolonization… convinced that we have to save this country from this project of capitalist death, and that we—men and women—are the ones who have to do it.”

She added, “Yes, people are discouraged but we have to learn our lessons and move on to build new foundations for the country with renewed energy and new proposals.”

Women human rights defenders see heightened risks in this new phase in Honduras’ tragic yet inspiring history. But they clearly have no intention of quitting.

As dangers mount and political forces realign, the international community must be even more vigilant and concerned about Honduras.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org. This article was originally published in two parts by Just Associates (JASS) www.justassociates.org

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .