Following the November 26 Honduran presidential election — which resulted in sitting President Juan Orlando Hernandez (better known as JOH) holding on to power amid accusations of blatant electoral fraud by observers from the Organisation of American States — anti-government protests continue to rage across the country.

Considering this, US endorsement of the re-election of the hugely unpopular and legally dubious JOH does not make much sense.

The opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla would seem to be closer to the US cut — a conservative media figure whose anti-corruption party (the PAC) performed surprisingly well in the 2013 elections. On election day, he had a five-point lead with almost 60% of the vote counted until election computers mysteriously broke down. When they came up again more than 24 hours later (with the backup hard drives wiped) JOH was on his way to the lead. A popular media figure against a notoriously corrupt President with a brother implicated in bribes and money laundering for the drug cartels. It’s hardly rocket science.

That is, until it is understood how Honduras is viewed by neoliberals and US business interests — as a social laboratory, where the radical experiment of “model cities” is being implemented, based on the concept of the charter city. Charter cities are nothing new: cities and towns autonomously governed by a specific charter separate to that of the nation (Hong Kong is often cited as an example).

The Honduras ZEDE (a Spanish acronym for Special Economic Development Zones) go far beyond the semi-autonomous status of current world charter cities or free trade zones established under the North American Free Trade Agreement. ZEDE will be territories actually sold to investors with a degree of autonomy that makes it a region no longer governed by Honduran laws or police. A memorandum of understanding between investors and the Honduran government requires that the government “clear all legal and political obstacles to the charter cities”.

This leads on from the wave of privatisation laws that were passed in late 2010 (following the coup of 2009). In May 2011 then president Porfirio Lobo declared Honduras “open for business”. (Lobo’s son, incidentally is serving a 24-year sentence in the US for drug smuggling after admitting he used his family connections and the Honduras police to move tonnes of cocaine across the country). The idea of the model cities was floated at the Honduras Open for Business Conference that year, where hundreds of private investors were invited to reap the benefits of the new laws.

Nevertheless the ZEDEs were strongly opposed by the judiciary as unconstitutional. This resistance was broken in December 2012 when JOH, at the time holding the powerful office of President of Congress, called a special session after midnight to illegally sack the four judges who opposed the scheme. This became known as the “Technical Coup”. With the recalcitrant judges out of the way, JOH was nicely placed when he became president to have the Supreme Court overrule an article in the constitution that forbids a president to run for a second term.

In terms of promoting “cutting edge” neo-liberal ideology, the US endorsement of JOH makes some kind of sense. In the superpower’s professed aim of promoting stability, peace, rule of law and controlling the drug trade it seems perverse. An easy way out would be for the US to support the OAS and opposition’s recommendation to run a new election, rather than opposing it, as US Charge d’Affaires Heidi Fulton did recently.

The situation in Honduras continues to be volatile. Government repression has been compared to El Salvador in the 1970s, which resulted in a 12-year civil war. The outrage is palpable. A pre-election poll showed over 70% of Hondurans opposing JOH running for a second term and so many Hondurans defied a dusk-to-dawn curfew that a section of the Honduran special forces went on strike, unwilling to fire on their countrymen. The military police (a US trained and funded “anti drug” force) on the other hand continue to respond in force, responsible for at least 34 civilian deaths thus far.

According to the Honduras Solidarity Network, government tactics have been typical:

… Live bullets fired against anti-fraud protesters in the streets; raids targeted at specific houses or whole neighborhoods; state security forces entering neighborhoods in the middle of the night with lists of people to arrest or find; disappearances; assassinations committed by paramilitary groups and death squads believed to be connected to the state; trumped up charges and criminalisation; among other tactics used to incite terror in the population.

Meanwhile, in the post-election chaos and the distractions of the new year, the government announced the first ZEDEs. One will be on the island of Exposicion in the Gulf of Fonseca, which will entail the removal of 15 families. Another island with a strongly resistant community, El Zacate, is also up for privatisation. And on December 27, JOH stealthily privatised the harbour of San Lorenzo, located in pristine ecologically sensitive waters.

Marches, demonstrations, strikes, road blockages are planned to continue through January.

Peter Fray

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