After more than two weeks since elections were held, Honduras still does not have an officially recognized president-elect. In this piece, I discuss the election and its aftermath, focusing on the energy of resilience and resistance among Honduran youth and the protest and repression that has erupted since the election. I highlight how the highways and toll booths are important sites of tension and destruction. I am conducting doctoral fieldwork in Honduras, focusing on the experiences of deportees in and around the Sula Valley yet the unexpected election and its aftermath has taken center stage.
“The only thing Juan Orlando offers us is the pozo,” Irvin Daniel [i] tells me. Pozo – literally meaning “well” [ii] – refers to newly constructed supermax-style prisons in Honduras.
A week after Honduras’ currently contested elections, Irvin Daniel explains why people are fervently opposed to the re-election of the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez (colloquially known as JOH). At 24 years-old, Irvin Daniel describes life as a daily struggle. He lives in Villanueva, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, where his family built a make-shift home along land that was once a railway. Irvin has been deported from Mexico twice. He is trying to finish high school and is constantly looking for work. His uncle and two cousins were murdered last year, one of them after having an asylum claimed denied and being deported from the United States. As Irvin and others see it, Orlando’s past four years in power have only made life harder for young people living on the margins.
At 4pm on November 26th, the Honduran election polls closed. Yet late that night, there were still no results. This was unusual: typically, by 11:00pm the votes are tallied and the winner declared.
With about 50% of the vote reported, Salvador Nasralla, of the primary opposition party known as the Alianza, was ahead by 5 percentage points. Statistically, this seemed to assure an Alianza victory. However, late that same night Orlando declared himself the winner. The body in charge of counting the votes, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), notably is led by Orlando-appointees. The TSE continued to postpone announcing an official count, citing differing and often unusual reasons. At one point, the TSE announced the electoral technology crashed and had to be re-initiated. Then the TSE claimed that many of the votes from areas where the Alianza dominates had irregularities that required additional scrutiny. Improbably, in the following week, the TSE released new preliminary information stating that Orlando was ahead by 1.5% with the final count still pending.
Today, two weeks after Hondurans voted, there is still not an official result.
While the declaration from the TSE is still pending, their judgement appears increasingly irrelevant. The constant stalling and confusion only adds to the popular sentiment that Juan Orlando and his ruling National party are committing fraud to maintain the presidency.
Meanwhile, people have taken to the streets, demanding that the popular vote be respected and that Juan Orlando concede. After two days of massive protests that included torching toll booths, blocking highways, and looting stores, the government has instituted a nation-wide curfew, suspending constitutional protections and forbidding people from leaving their homes between 6:00pm and 6:00am. [iii]
The military and police forces have met protesters with increasing levels of violence. At least 14 people have been killed by security forces since the elections, and 844 people are currently detained. [iv]
Irvin Daniel – and other young people like him – are at the forefront of this popular protest. People his age were young when a 2009 coup d’état removed the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya Rosales, from power. Since his ouster, the National Party has ruled the country. Irvin Daniel has experienced eight years of one-party rule for most of his adult life.
In the United States, an 8-year presidency is common, yet in Honduras the constitution expressly forbids re-election. The coup against Zelaya Rosales was carried out precisely because he planned to hold a referendum to gauge interest in changing the constitution to allow for re-election. Orlando has not gone that route. Rather, he changed the make-up of the country’s top courts, which decided that prohibiting re-election violates an individual’s rights. This opened the door for Orlando to run for re-election, even though the constitution remains unchanged. Regardless of the legal rulings, the idea that the same person could continue as president does not sit well with much of the Honduran citizenry, which has been under military rule almost as frequently as civilian rule. People regularly liken re-election to dictatorship.
In Sector Lopez Arellano, the most populous neighborhood of Honduras’s third largest city, Choloma, the residents have been organizing in preparation for this moment ever since the 2009 coup. Carlos, one of the organizers in La Lopez, says that they are ready to stand up to whatever repression comes. I asked youth manning the highway blockade from Carlos’s area what they will do if Juan Orlando is declared the winner. They say that it means ‘war.’ A teenager with a t-shirt covering most of his face tells me that they are ready to take up arms if necessary. They will not accept four more years of the same repression, marginalization, and violence.
The violence in La Lopez is noteworthy. Some sectors of society have lauded Juan Orlando for ushering in significant declines in the country’s homicide rate[v]—but these gains in security are experienced unevenly. In neighborhoods like La Lopez, murders have remained frequent, while other kinds of violence and insecurity abound. Choloma has actually seen an increase in homicides in the last year. While the military now patrols to enforce the curfew across the country, in neighborhoods like La Lopez the presence of militarized authorities is longstanding. In the poor, urban neighborhoods of Honduras’s cities, the Military Police (a new force inaugurated under Juan Orlando) are a common presence. And the repression they represent – especially for poor, young men – is nothing new.
The night before I visited Carlos and his team, the military dispersed a protest on the highway. To do so, the military fired gas canisters and live rounds at the crowd to clear the street. When protestors retreated to their neighborhood, the authorities followed, shooting at them even as they took cover in their homes. The boys pointed out the marks of bullets; I picked up a spent casing.
Flashpoints of Youth Resistance
The same day that the military shot at unarmed teenagers running home in La Lopez, other protestors burnt down the toll booth on the way to Villanueva on the other side of the Sula Valley. Indeed, all of the toll booths across the Valley have been left inoperable by protestors. So far, none of them have resumed function.
This is largely symbolic: toll booths (or peajes in Honduras) are a flashpoint for unrest. They represent a particular kind of extractive business model that the National Party has championed since assuming power after Zelaya Rosales' ouster. In an effort to attract private investment, much of the country’s resources have been concessioned to private, often foreign, companies. Funds from many of the tolls go directly to private companies, not to the state or the populace. In return, the company is supposed to maintain the highway, but that part of the bargain is not always fulfilled. Meanwhile, the tolls are exorbitant for the majority of the people who live on poverty wages. In addition, intractable traffic jams on the 4-lane highways have become commonplace as cars slow down to pass through the toll booths. Burning down the toll plazas, then, is an act of symbolic resistance which reclaims freedom of movement from the state and its privatization policies.
Leading up to the election, nearly everyone I spoke with was supporting the Alianza with only two exceptions—two individuals who were employed by the government. Yet even as people expressed their preference for the Alianza, they also declared with conviction that they expected the National Party to commit fraud to maintain power. In spite of this cynicism, people still turned out to vote in massive numbers – including young people like Irvin Daniel and the boys from La Lopez.
All around the Sula Valley, I often hear random shouts of “Fuera JOH!” (“JOH get out!”). Under curfew, people blare what has now become the de facto anthem “JOH, es para fuera que vas” [vi] from their windows. People spill out of their houses, banging pots and pans to the rhythm of the song and defying the curfew and the National Party government all at once.
The question now, though, is what happens when a president is officially declared. If the TSE names Juan Orlando Hernandez as victorious – an act which seems increasingly likely – the protests that began with young people blocking highways and burning down toll booths will likely grow. What that will become – and how the state will respond – remains to be seen.
[i] This and all names used in this essay are pseudonyms.
[ii] Well: as in a deep, dark hole in the ground.
[iii] After four days, the curfew started to be rolled back, little by little, especially after Amnesty International issues a report condemning the suspension of human rights. It was extended to 8pm, then 10pm, then lifted for parts of the country altogether.
[iv] After 4 nights of the curfew, one segment of the police, the Cobra Battalion, went on a one-day strike, stating that they were apolitical and would not be used as tools of repression. This was a remarkable move, but limited in its impact.
[v] There is also skepticism as to whether the statistics reported during Orlando’s tenure are wholly accurate. For example, a change to the way that murder statistics are kept – requiring autopsies and a coroner’s report – may significantly undercount murders in a country where only three cities have a coroner’s office and where tradition requires swift burial of bodies.
[vi] The translation is essentially, JOH you’re on your way out.
Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Michigan.