At a time when the United States should be going out of its way to stop a dangerous regression toward dictatorships in Latin America, the Trump administration – which to its credit has denounced the power grabs by the leftist leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua – should be equally critical of the slide into authoritarian rule by the conservative president of Honduras.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has responded too slowly, and weakly, to the widespread irregularities in the Nov. 26 elections in Honduras, which both President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his left-of-center rival Salvador Nasralla claim to have won. Worse, the Trump administration has failed to strongly denounce Hernandez’s previous maneuvers to run for re-election, despite the fact that the Honduran constitution prohibited him from doing so.
Some of you may ask yourselves, why should Trump criticize a U.S.-friendly autocrat? Well, by turning a blind eye to a rightist autocrat, the United States loses its moral authority to denounce leftist ones. It enables Venezuela’s dictator Nicolas Maduro to tell his people that U.S. statements and sanctions against him have nothing to do with a legitimate defense of democracy and human rights.
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“The Trump administration’s silence and passivity has generated all kinds of suspicions that the U.S. has a double standard on democracy and human rights issues,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. “That’s a cancer that destroys U.S. credibility. … It allows authoritarian rulers to say that Washington makes its judgments selectively, according to its political interests.”
Hernandez is known to have a close relationship with Trump’s chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, from the days when Kelly was the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami. The Honduran president is seen by Trump administration officials as a benign dictator, a leader of a poverty- and crime-ridden country who has managed to reduce the country’s homicide rate, one of the highest in the world.
Hernandez is also seen among Trump’s aides as one of the few solid U.S. allies in Central America, where Nicaragua and El Salvador are ruled by former Marxist guerrillas who are close to Venezuela, and Guatemala by a former comedian who is embroiled in legal battles over campaign corruption charges.
But Hernandez has co-opted virtually all Honduran institutions, much like the leftist rulers of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have done. He stacked the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal with loyalists, and changed the constitution so that he would be allowed to run for another four-year term.
The recent Honduran elections overseen by Hernandez’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal were so murky that the OAS electoral observation mission left without issuing a verdict. In a Dec. 6 report, the OAS mission said that the elections were marred by a “lack of guarantees and transparency” and an “accumulation of irregularities, mistakes and systemic problems.”
The TSE mysteriously interrupted the vote count when Nasralla was winning by 5 percentage points, with 57 percent of the votes counted. Then, several hours later, the TSE results showed Hernandez closing the difference. A few days later, Hernandez was winning by 1.5 percent of the votes, according to official results.
When Nasralla – a former TV personality whose main political backer is former President Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela’s regime – called the election results a fraud, there were violent protests on the streets that left at least four people dead, including a teenage girl.
The Trump administration has said very little about the Honduran elections. More than a week and a half after the elections, State Department spokesperson Heather Neuert said that “we are working with Honduran political leaders and authorities to increase the transparency and accountability there.”
That’s pretty bland stuff, especially when you compare it with the fiery State Department denunciations of similar shenanigans by leftist regimes.
To be credible, the Trump administration should understand that there is no such thing as a “good” dictator. Siding with authoritarian leaders is morally wrong, undermines U.S. criticism of leftist autocrats, and sooner or later backfires against the United States. That goes for Trump’s relations with Russia, Turkey, and – now – Honduras.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.