WASHINGTON — In what critics call a weakening of U.S. support for democracy in Latin America, the Trump administration appears to be prioritizing concerns about immigration and drug trafficking from Honduras over the country’s violent election process.
The disputed election resulted in the win of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a right-wing incumbent and friend of the White House who has been accused of stealing votes.
The Central American nation voted for president on Nov. 26. Hernandez was running for re-election after he had stacked courts with supporters who helped him change the Honduran Constitution to allow another term.
Vote-counting initially put Salvador Nasralla, a popular TV host, ahead. Then, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which was in charge of counting votes, mysteriously went silent for more than 24 hours. When it released results again, Hernandez took the lead.
Opponents and international monitors cried foul, and the impoverished nation of 9 million has been engulfed in tension and violence since. At least 14 people have been killed and dozens injured, mostly by government security forces firing on unarmed demonstrators, according to Amnesty International.
Despite the turmoil, the Trump administration announced Dec. 7 it was certifying the Honduran government’s compliance with a 12-point program to improve human rights and corruption safeguards. The certification is required to release Honduras’ share of nearly $650 million in U.S. aid allocated this year for three Central American countries.
Hernandez’s supporters claimed a boost Saturday when Heide Fulton, the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Honduras, appeared beside an electoral commission official who critics say helped Hernandez commit fraud.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in certifying Honduras, said the country had taken “effective steps” to counter criminal gangs, drug traffickers and organized crime, as well as protect the rights and lives of political dissidents and journalists.
Human rights activists counter that the country’s sky-high homicide rate has fallen but killings of journalists, environmentalists, trade unionists and others remain a serious problem. They also say Hernandez and members of his government are dogged by accusations of looting a public health fund as well as drug trafficking.
Congress allotted about $650 million in the 2017 budget for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in an effort to cut crime and improve economic conditions there sufficiently to stem immigration. The countries had to pledge to work to keep their citizens at home.
Hugo Noe Pino, an economist in Honduras who supports Hernandez’s opponent, said Washington has helped legitimize the embattled electoral tribunal, citing Fulton’s appearance.
One reason, he said, is Hernandez has a friend in the White House. President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, led U.S. Southern Command, which has a task force in Honduras.
But Pino said the strategy could backfire, generate more instability and immigration the U.S.