The inauguration ceremony for Juan Orlando Hernández’s second term as president of Honduras was held in a sparsely attended stadium guarded by hundreds of soldiers and police officers decked out in riot gear. Outside, in the streets of Tegucigalpa, protesters did what they’ve been doing since November, when Hernández went against the country’s constitution to run for a second term: They blocked roads, burned tires, and chanted, using the president’s initials, “Out with JOH!”
Hernández’s re-election represents a political and social crisis for the already-fragile nation, and casts new light on the U.S.’s complicated relationship with its most important ally in Central America — namely, its history of supporting Honduras’s armed forces while turning a blind eye to the corruption, power grabs, and violence that critics say have put the country on the path to authoritarianism.
Honduras’s constitution explicitly forbids a president from running for a second term, but Hernández ran anyway. Then, after international observers found multiple signs of fraud in the election, the electoral tribunal controlled by Hernández’s party declared him the victor. The country erupted in protest, and the government responded with force, at times firing live rounds into crowds of demonstrators. Some 30 people have died in the violence thus far.
Today’s crisis has roots going back almost a decade, and has been consistently enabled by the United States. In 2009, President José Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup engineered by the National Party, which remains in power today.
The justification for the coup was that Zelaya was setting himself up for re-election — which is precisely what Hernández went on to do last year, except successfully. After initially condemning the coup in 2009, the United States then reversed course: Hillary Clinton’s State Department endorsed the coup regime by allowing it to hold new elections without restoring Zelaya to power.
Since then, the U.S. has given more than $111 million in security assistance to Honduras’s military and police, even after the Honduran government was implicated in massive corruption scandals and high-profile political assassinations.
That pattern is now repeating itself: Even after most of Latin America and the international community condemned last year’s elections as suspect, the U.S. endorsed Hernández’s victory, cementing his and the National Party’s increasingly comprehensive grip on power.
“All of this is a continuation of the weakening of institutions, the concentration of power, and what we might call the construction of a dictatorship,” said Hugo Noe Pino, a liberal economist and leading critic of the current administration. “And the sad thing is seeing the United States support a situation like that.”
This segment originally aired January 29, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.