By Borland (text) and Roger Harris (photos)
(If you are interested in being an election monitor for Honduras’ Nov. 24 general election, send an email to Chuck Kaufman at chuck(at)AFGJ.org.)
Arriving at noon on November 16, 2012, in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, I joined a delegation of 35 internationalists and was immediately immersed in getting up to speed on the background and logistics for the Honduran primary elections. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, the political graffiti we observed attested to an entrenched resistance to the US‐backed coup‐installed government operating since June 28, 2009.
After a quick lunch, we traveled from our hotel to the offices of COFADEH, the leading human rights NGO that was hosting our delegation. A COFADEH staff member explained our duties as human rights observers. “Don’t intervene. Keep your eyes open. Stay alert. Report by phone anything unusual, giving details, such as time, place, individuals’ names and ranks, license plate numbers or other identifying details.”
Chuck Kaufman from the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), our delegation coordinator, repeated these instructions throughout the next few days, “We are not culturally competent to interpret the verbal and nonverbal signs of a conflict. Report to the Hondurans, and let them decide what to do.”
On Saturday a few more delegates trickled in—four internationalists studying at the Peace University in Costa Rica, six grassroots organizers from El Salvador. We spent the day getting to know each other and meeting LIBRE party members and other representatives of the social movements that make up the Honduran Resistance.
(Youth leader and LIBRE candidate Ana Rivera briefs international election observers the day before the primary.)
We learned what a ballot looks like. We learned that voters would be completing four ballots: for president, for national assembly, for mayor and for internal party leaders.
We learned that voters in the capital city of Tegucigalpa would select 23 candidates for the national assembly. We learned that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is responsible for overseeing the process and that the military is responsible for providing security.
(The four ballot boxes: municipal, presidential, congressional, and party leadership.)
(Spirited LIBRE Party activists outside of polling station rally supporters.)
We also learned of a variety of perspectives within the resistance on what the electoral turn means. Some activists worried that party politics was subordinating the more radical demands of LGBTTI and feminist sectors to the anticorruption agenda of more mainstream sectors of the movement. Others remained cautiously optimistic that the electoral process would allow the refounding of the state to proceed without violence.
(Our blue “international observer of human rights” T-shirts. Soldiers check voter identifications at polling station.)
Our role on election day was to act as visual deterrents. Yet party supporters did not really expect overt repression or fraud in Tegucigalpa. More important, we learned, we would provide a “dry run” for the 2013 elections, when the stakes and potential for violence could be much higher.
(Official ballots are delivered to the polling station. The military guards inside of the polling station at the local school. )
On Sunday morning, we rose early so that we could witness the polls open at 7 AM. Our three‐person team was excited and a bit nervous, as we were going to a “dangerous neighborhood.” Our polling place was a school where a Resistance teacher had been assassinated in a classroom in front of his students.
But when we arrived, we discovered a pleasant, almost festive ambience both within and outside the polling stations. Outside, each of the parties had erected kiosks plastered with propaganda and staffed by militants eager to chat with us. With our “official” observer T‐shirts and badges, we were politely granted access to polling station.
Inside, we discovered poll workers frantically setting up their stations so that they would be ready to receive voters. One of the “ballot custodians” for a Liberal Party precinct had not arrived. Agitated poll workers complained to the military officer in charge who quickly designated a soldier to stand in for the missing custodian and certify the poll workers’ identities so that they could take possession of the ballots. By this time voters had begun to trickle in, but no one seemed in a great rush, and so the latish start did not prove problematic.
(A soldier guards as voters line up outside the National Party polling rooms. )
Our team settled in for a pleasant day observing the proceedings, chatting with voters, poll workers, the military and other officials. Long lines began to form at some stations, but again, no one seemed in a particular hurry, and many people lingered after voting, chatting with neighbors and looking on as children played in the shaded courtyards.
Having read of the many assassinations of members of the resistance, of political candidates, and of journalists, and having been told by our LIBRE party hosts that some of their supporters would not vote because they feared identifying openly with the party, I marveled at the enthusiasm of those who did show up at the polls. I asked LIBRE voters throughout the day whether they feared repression. This was their common response: “After the coup we were in the streets resisting for over a year, our daily protests met by tear gas and blows. We have learned not to be afraid anymore.”
Whereas National Party supporters outnumbered both Liberal and LIBRE supporters in all four polling places that my team visited, a steady stream of LIBRE supporters appeared in the popular neighborhoods, approximating and sometimes outnumbering those voting in the Liberal primary.
(Katey Borland, author of this article and election observer, interviewed by the press. )
My team attracted the attention of Hondurans as well. T.V. journalists wanted our impressions, the military and police wanted to assure us that they were honorable and would protect us against any danger. Ordinary Hondurans were pleased to know that we were taking an interest in their country’s political process and thanked us for accompanying them.
(Young boy proudly shows his finger dipped in ink, which would have indicated that he had voted if he were an adult.)
The polls closed at 5 pm without incident and we returned to our hotel to share experiences and observations with the larger delegation.
When LIBRE Party representatives arrived on Monday to debrief with us, we were heartened to learn that Presidential candidate Xiomara Castro had garnered almost 300,000 votes with only 40% of the polls reporting.
It looked like the new party would easily exceed its goal of 400,000 votes in the primaries.
(LIBRE Party militants display banner of LIBRE presidential candidate Ziomara Castro, flanked by her husband and former president Manuel Zelaya (left) and liberator of Central America Francisco Morazon (right).)
We had been on‐the‐ground witnesses to an historic victory in Honduran politics: the century‐old two party system had finally encountered a third political option with the strength to alter politics‐as‐usual in Honduras. I’ll be looking forward to returning in November 2013 to witness the next chapter in the struggle for social justice in Honduras.