Eleven days after its general election, Honduras still has no president.
Since the 26 November vote, at least 11 people have died in clashes with security forces, and tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests over an electoral process marked by suspicious delays, inexplicable irregularities – and opposition claims that the ruling party is trying to steal the election.
The stand-off pits opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla against the rightwing incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, but Hondurans say the race isn’t just about who will run the country for the next four years.
The political turmoil will likely have far-reaching consequences, and the United States, which wields considerable influence in the country, shares some responsibility for creating the political landscape that laid the ground for the crisis.
“Many countries around the world are struggling with building representative democracies and fighting against corruption and crime,” said Eric Olson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center.
“Honduras is definitely one of these, and what happens there will offer the world some important lessons. So far, the lessons have been more of the painful variety: the kinds of crisis and violence that can emerge when transparency is undermined to guarantee political favour.”
As well as calling for an end to the electoral crisis, Honduran protesters have expressed outrage over a string of scandals including the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, the pilfering of the country’s social security agency and allegations that associates of Hernández are involved in the drug trade.
Protesters often describe Hernández’s bid for re-election as an unconstitutional power grab – a charge given added irony by the fact that the current president justified the 2009 coup because of questionable allegations that Zelaya was plotting to seek re-election. After his election in 2013, Hernández changed the constitution to eliminate term limits.
Shortly after the coup, the US froze aid to the Honduran government, but it was restored shortly thereafter, and Hernández has enjoyed continuing support from Washington.
And whatever happens with elections will have direct implications for the United States, said Adam Isacson, senior program associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Americans should care about the current chaos in Honduras because of cocaine and migrants,” he said.
“After the 2009 coup, the government essentially stopped functioning in rural areas where organized crime took hold and cocaine shipments started arriving in larger numbers. This prompted even more US anti-drug assistance. Then, as institutions hollowed out and became corrupted, gang activity increased and the United States got a wave of migrants. An unstable Honduras will mean more of this.”
Honduras has long been a strategic partner for Washington: since 2009, the US has invested nearly $114m in security assistance to establish elite military and police units, ratchet up border security, and carry out counternarcotics operations as part of Hernández’s crackdown on gangs.
All this has considerably broadened the military’s influence. While the security push appeared to cut Honduras’s murder rate in half, the country still ranks among the most violent places in the world and remains a key corridor for drug smuggling to the United States.
And despite corruption scandals implicating the government, Hernández is still regarded as a reliable US ally. But the US government has barely commented on the current crisis, beyond a few embassy statements praising a partial recount and “lamenting” the violence.
The US Democratic senator Patrick Leahy said he had yet to receive information he had requested from the US embassy in Tegucigalpa about the electoral irregularities and the violence that followed. “This lack of responsiveness in such a time of crisis is troubling,” he said.
A way out of the current impasse remains unclear. Negotiations over a possible recount have dragged on for days, and some opposition leaders have even called for a new run-off election.
Despite the crisis, however, Reuters reported this week that the US had quietly certified Honduras for making progress in fighting corruption and improving human rights, freeing up millions in US assistance.
As one of the US’s closest allies in Central America, Honduras will probably serve as a litmus test for how the United States will treat other allies with similar stained reputations.
“The certification and the weak embassy statements so far tell us how low a priority democracy and human rights are on this administration’s list of US interests,” said Isacson.