- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
With 68 percent of the ballots counted from this past Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández holds an "insurmountable" (as the Associated Press put it) lead over the LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro, the wife of disgraced former President Manuel Zelaya. As of now, Hernández leads Castro 34 percent to 29 percent.
Monitoring teams from the Organization of American States and the European Union have endorsed the credibility of the electoral authorities’ numbers and have reported that the election was transparent and valid. So far, Spain, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and even leftist Daniel Ortega in next-door Nicaragua have recognized Hernández as the winner.
What needs to happen next is for U.S. President Barack Obama to pick up the phone and congratulate the winner. Why the rush? Two reasons.
First, as expected, Castro’s husband, Zelaya, is threatening anarchy in the streets if his wife is not recognized as the winner. Early on Sunday, Castro had intemperately and prematurely declared herself the winner, and now Zelaya, ever the troublemaker, is claiming the election results are fraudulent.
One thing Honduras doesn’t need at this point is another political crisis on par with what happened in 2009, when Zelaya was unceremoniously removed from office for his repeated illegal attempts to rewrite the Honduran Constitution in the mode of the late Hugo Chávez. With Zelaya supporters in the United States already moving to frame a narrative of electoral fraud and crisis (see here, here, and here), the specious claim that she is the rightful president of Honduras needs to be strangled in the crib. Of course, an Obama phone call will not stop this campaign, but it will help considerably in validating the integrity of the election and Hernández’s standing as the legitimate president-elect.
Secondly, Honduras needs to move forward quickly post-election. If there is anything everyone agreed on heading into Sunday’s election, it was that whoever emerged the victor is inheriting an array of deep and seemingly intractable problems without a majority and without a mandate. (Now, the challenges may even include a divided Congress.)
In short, the country is a basket case. Not only is it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere — with a poverty rate of some 71 percent among its 8.5 million people — but gangs and drug traffickers have made it also one of the most violent on Earth, with a homicide rate of some 20 murders per day. Annual growth will likely drop below 3 percent this year, down from 3.3 last year, while public debt amounts to 35 percent of GDP. An IMF deal expired last year, and some new relief is desperately needed. Foreign investment is hampered by high levels of crime and corruption.
In other words, trying to get the country out of its tailspin and moving in the right direction will be a massive undertaking, one the country is incapable of managing on its own. It needs strong neighbors like the United States, Colombia, and Mexico to engage and support it in tamping down violence by standing up professional security forces, while at the same time supporting economic growth policies. A new administration in Honduras committed to those goals provides an opportunity to move quickly and with purpose. For the sake of the Honduran people and regional stability, there is simply no time to wait.