Both Honduras and Nicaragua hold presidential elections in November 2021 and the US government has a strong interest in both, although for rather different reasons. Both have incumbent presidents who will either stand again or, in the case of Honduras, more likely be replaced as candidate by a successor seen as reliably committed to the same style of government. Given that both countries are economically and militarily tiny, it might be thought that Washington would be unconcerned by their internal affairs, but in reality it sees much at stake.
Promoting democracy or promoting “polyarchy”?
The issues that concern the US in Central America are rooted in more than a century of intervention in its politics. The forms of intervention have changed, of course, but always based on the fundamental aim of pursuing US corporate interests. For decades this meant supporting dictators like Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza or Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt, but later it was more convenient to “promote democracy” until, two decades ago, democratic elections in Latin America produced the “wrong” results. This brought a further shift in US intervention, towards what William Robinson (who worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s) called promoting polyarchy, a limited form of democracy with “elite rule by transnational capitalists and agents or allies, in which the participation of the masses is limited to choosing among competing elites in tightly controlled elections” (a system which has applied in Honduras for several decades). Robinson added that “democracy promotion” and electoral intervention programs were combined with “coercive and other forms of diplomacy, economic aid or sanctions, international media and propaganda campaigns(…) military or paramilitary actions, covert operations and so on” to destabilize undesirable left-wing governments. Timothy Gill argues that this policy now has a further twist, towards “supporting opposition actors to unseat democratically-elected far leftist leaders,” using agencies like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. Such measures have been deployed in Nicaragua for the last 15 years.
In considering the dilemmas Washington faces in pursuing its interests, this article sets aside for the moment the obvious case for respecting the sovereignty of both countries as the US has no legitimate right to interfere in them. Not only is this argument correct but it is one deployed by the US itself in relation to its own elections: it has complained loudly about alleged Russian interference and has strict laws in place to deter foreign influence in US politics. Yet it openly tries to influence other countries’ elections and condemns as ‘repressive’ those governments which deploy similar laws. A former US Congressman, the libertarian Ron Paul, is reported to have said that “It is particularly Orwellian to call US manipulation of foreign elections ‘promoting democracy.’ How would we Americans feel if for example the Chinese arrived with millions of dollars to support certain candidates deemed friendly to China?”
US concerns in Central America
What are US concerns in Central America? Foremost in its effect on US domestic politics is the issue of migrants crossing its southwest border, which in 2021 has hit levels not seen for two decades and is forecast by officials to reach one million arrivals over the course of the year, with many of these coming from Honduras but few from Nicaragua. Drug trafficking is another concern related to the US’s porous border, with Central America used as a staging post for shipments from Colombia and elsewhere. A third concern is that, despite their small size, the US considers both countries to be of strategic importance. Honduras is a US military asset because its base at Soto Cano (one of 76 in Latin America), gives it quick access to the rest of the region. In contrast, Nicaragua is categorized as “an extraordinary and unusual threat” to US security which, according to Admiral Fuller, head of the US Southern Command, is “trying to destabilize democracies in the area.” Fourth, in terms of human rights, the US categorizes both countries as deficient, although the State Department’s recent 2020 reports suggest far greater concern with Nicaragua (to which it devotes 39 pages) than Honduras (just 27 pages).
The fifth factor driving US interest in the outcome of the November elections is one largely unmentioned in official discourse but is perhaps the most important: that the two countries represent completely different economic models. While both are open to international markets and for both the US is their main trading partner, Honduras is pursuing an extreme, neoliberal development model based on the extraction of natural resources at whatever cost to local communities, a minimal role for the public sector, and maintaining the continent’s second most unequal income distribution (after Brazil). On the other hand, Nicaragua has a mixed economy, with policies focused on public sector and social investment, anti-poverty initiatives, and promotion of small enterprise and food sovereignty, which have cut extreme poverty by more than half since 2007.
Given the importance of this fifth factor, the US might be expected to support the present governing model in Honduras while favoring the opposition in Nicaragua. Indeed, as far as the latter is concerned, this is what is happening: the US has maintained an antagonistic stance towards Daniel Ortega’s government with sanctions aimed both at Nicaragua’s economy and at individual government officials; it has persuaded allies such as the European Union and the UK to follow suit; it is proactively funding opposition groups and local media through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, and it has instituted the “RAIN” programme (“Responsive Assistance in Nicaragua”) which is explicitly aimed at achieving Ortega’s electoral downfall.
However, while this may be the obvious stance for the US to take, with clear precedents from the 1980s and earlier, it is far from clear that it really serves US interests, as we shall see.
The US dilemma in Honduras
In Honduras, the US faces a dilemma. Its president, Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), was favored by the Trump administration principally because he is a strongman (utilizing la mano dura, in Spanish) who is willing to forcibly stop Honduran migrants from leaving the country and who signed an absurd “safe country” agreement implying that Honduras was a haven for asylum seekers. A similar agreement with Guatemala led a Trump-era official to declare that “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas [in Mexico] is now our southern border.” In return, Trump was willing to acquiesce in the disastrous domestic policies being pursued by JOH even though they are pushing more Hondurans to attempt to leave.
Part of President Joe Biden’s problem in dealing with Honduras is that the blame for its disastrous policies extends back to Barack Obama’s presidency when, in 2009, he turned a blind eye to the military coup which deposed the progressive President Manuel Zelaya. The coup led to a succession of neoliberal governments and legitimized a series of flawed elections which culminated, in 2017, with JOH being returned as president even though the counting of the vote was clearly fraudulent. Since 2009, opposition has been suppressed by increasingly militarized police forces (the country has several different ones) which, far from preventing the endemic gang violence, appear to have fostered it, so that many migrants say they are literally running for their lives. Human rights abuses were brought to international attention by the murder of Indigenous land rights activist Berta Cáceres in 2016, the most notorious of a continuing series of assassinations and disappearances of community activists. Corruption is also rife, with the US-favored elites able to steal from the state with virtual impunity after the failure and disbanding of a US-sponsored anti-corruption body known as the MACCIH (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras). Since it was closed, 93% of those accused in corruption cases begun by the MACCIH have been freed.
Honduras, a new “narcostate”
Nothing has illustrated Biden’s dilemma more clearly than two recent US prosecutions for drug-running which have implicated numerous Honduran government officials and led to it being labelled a “narcostate”. The first was the conviction of JOH’s brother Tony, who faces at least 30 years in prison for bringing 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the US. The prosecution concluded that drug traffickers “infiltrated” and “controlled” the Honduran government. The defendant in the second case, Geovanny Fuentes, claimed that his drug labs were protected by the military on the orders of JOH himself, quoting him as saying that he would “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos” by flooding the US with cocaine. While JOH was quick to deny the allegations and to remind Biden of their past friendship, the new administration has been obliged to distance itself, saying that “We are committed to partnering (…) with those in the Honduran Government that are committed to working with us to root out the corruption that has become really endemic to that country.” A US Special Envoy recently went on a four-day visit to Guatemala and El Salvador to investigate the root causes of migration, but not to Honduras. To worsen matters, Honduras is reported to have been “flooded” with Colombian cocaine since the start of 2021.
Corruption affects fight against COVID-19
A combination of natural disasters has highlighted the ways in which the narcostate fails not just the poor but the majority of Hondurans. In November 2020, two hurricanes hit a country totally unprepared for them, destroying 6,000 homes and seriously damaging 85,000 more. Six months afterwards, the international organization Médecins Sans Frontières said the government’s response had been “inadequate”, leaving more than 55,000 people still living in temporary shelters. Poverty in Honduras increased to 70% in 2020, up 10.7 percentage points from 59.3% in 2019, driven by tropical storm damage and by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The massive disruption has provoked a fresh peak of coronavirus infections in 2021. Honduras has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Central America, to the point where mayors in seven cities near the border with El Salvador asked for and received vaccines from their Salvadoran counterparts. Hondurans living near the Nicaraguan border are crossing it to get vaccinated. Weakened by corruption and underfunding, the health service has been overwhelmed. In April, a senior doctor reported “the collapse of the hospital network” which is now on a “war footing.” Of seven mobile hospitals ordered last year to fill the gaps, only two are working properly. The head of the agency which made the $47 million deal to buy the hospitals, accused of corruption, was sacked. People protested at one of the mobile units under the banner: “If it were a narco lab, it would be working.”
Despite its terrible track record, the National Party, in power since the 2009 coup, faces a divided opposition, posing further dilemmas for the US. Opinion polls suggest that the left-of-center LIBRE party, headed by Xiomara Castro, wife of Manual Zelaya who was deposed in the 2009 coup, is best-placed to threaten the National Party. Her position could have been strengthened via an alliance with other opposition parties but this has not happened. Although the Liberal Party represents the traditional opposition, its candidate Yani Rosenthal served a prison sentence in the United States in 2017 for money laundering, meaning that Biden cannot easily back him. In any case, most observers think that JOH’s National Party will prevail, either through renewed electoral fraud or by buying votes, or both, as it did in 2017. JOH has resisted pressure for transparency in election funding, was accused by opponents of having no interest in electoral reform, and pushed through purely cosmetic changes to electoral law on the last possible day in the election timetable.
Nevertheless, the US State Department urged the Honduran Congress to approve the new law and, when it did, the Organization of American States (OAS) called it a “significant step forward.” They did this despite having produced clear evidence of fraud in the last elections, which the OAS said had “low integrity,” even calling for the elections to be rerun. Maneuvers like these suggest that the US might well swallow its objections to corruption and back the National Party, while insisting that it choose a candidate to replace JOH. But – if his successor governs in the same mold – corruption, poverty, and violence are likely to continue, spurring fresh migration.
The US dilemma in Nicaragua: Ortega leads the polls
Notwithstanding its political hostility towards Daniel Ortega’s government, the US cannot avoid noting that few Nicaraguans head north towards its southwest border. Nicaragua is also more successful than its neighbors in combating the drug trade. It recently regained its status as one of the safest countries in Latin America, despite the violent protests of 2018, even while Honduras remains one of the most dangerous. After a two-month peak of COVID-19 infections and deaths in mid-2020, Nicaragua has had a much lower incidence of the virus than its neighbors; as a result, the economic damage it experienced in 2020 was about half the average for Latin America generally. The two November hurricanes, which hit Nicaragua first, caused relatively few deaths and aid was quickly sent to the regions most affected.
As in Honduras, the Nicaraguan opposition is divided, but this gives the US a different problem: should it urge Ortega’s opponents to unite behind a single candidate whom it backs to win, or should it denounce the election as a fraud (as it last did in 1984), persuade the opposition to stand down, and attempt to delegitimize the winner? The latest opinion poll gives Ortega a substantial lead (69% of voting intentions compared with 21% for the opposition if it has a single candidate), making Washington’s dilemma worse: as things appear now, barely six months from the polls, there might be a decisive Sandinista win that would be difficult for the US to discredit, especially as several political parties are now committed to taking part. Inevitably Washington is laying the groundwork to do this, joining the OAS in criticizing Nicaragua for not implementing radical electoral reforms, even though there were no more than minor criticisms of the electoral process last time around (the OAS said at the time that any faults in the 2017 election “have not substantially affected the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.”)
Most recently, Washington has had new opportunities to attack the Nicaraguan electoral process as its authorities have moved to take legal action against opposition figures involved in corrupt practices. Washington alleges that the Ortega government is trying to debar them from standing in the elections, describing as ‘candidates’ those accused of the crimes, even though no party has yet selected who will stand. The most notable case is that of Cristiana Chamorro, under investigation for illegal use of foreign funds sent to the Nicaraguan non-profit that she controls. The money came from USAID and other US or European sources of the kind noted by Timothy Gill (see above), and was redirected to right-wing media outlets hostile to the Sandinista government. Chamorro closed her non-profit foundation in February this year, ostensibly to avoid compliance with a new Nicaraguan law controlling the receipt of funds from foreign governments which is very similar to the US’s own Foreign Agents Registration Act. In other words, Nicaragua is now, and perhaps belatedly, using the same measures to control foreign influence over its politics as the US government has had in place since 1938. Ben Norton, who has analyzed in detail the sources of Chamorro’s funding, says that the Nicaraguan media it finances “are an integral part of a political opposition that Washington has carefully managed, trained, and funded with millions of dollars over the past decade.”
The US faces a deeper dilemma in Nicaragua of which it must surely be aware, even if it ignores it in public discourse. None of the Nicaraguan opposition groups which it supports have so far put forward any platform other than vague intentions to “promote democracy.” But several were Trump supporters or have befriended right-wing US politicians such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and others. Many were also prominent figures in Nicaragua’s neoliberal governments between 1990 and 2006, under which poverty deepened and corruption became rampant. The opposition coup attempt in 2018 was fueled by the free flow of money, weapons, and drugs to those who held cities under siege when the country was paralyzed by roadblocks. It therefore seems highly likely that if Sandinismo were to be displaced, the outcome would be a neoliberal government of the kind that has produced social collapse in Honduras.
In 2005, when neoliberal policies were at their worst, surveys suggested that almost 70% of Nicaraguans wanted to emigrate, compared with fewer than half that number now. This could easily change. It can hardly be in the interest of the US for “caravans” of Nicaraguan migrants to start heading north towards its southwest border, along with their neighbors from Honduras. Yet Washington’s conflicted policies in Central America are likely to drive more migration, not reduce it.