Presidential elections in Honduras
Xiomara Castro and Salvador Nasralla, Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates celebrate after preliminary results showed them winning. (Seth Sidney Berry / Sipa via AP Images)

Here’s an inspiring calculation that shows just how much Hondurans wanted to restore democracy in the November 28 election: Reporter Jeff Ernst confirmed that the old regime was paying $300 per vote, using a war chest of at least $126 million. Modern technology facilitates vote buying; you take a cellphone photo of your ballot before casting it, to guarantee that you will get the payment later. Honduras is the second-poorest country in the Americas. If you compare per capita incomes, that $300 payment is the equivalent of giving an American voter $4,000. (The regime’s $126 million could have bought more than 300,000 votes.) But many thousands of Hondurans must have turned down the money, because the prodemocracy movement just won a smashing, landslide victory.

With 53 percent of the votes counted, Xiomara Castro and her five-party coalition have an insurmountable lead. (Her first name is pronounced show-MAR-a.) Castro has 53 percent, comfortably ahead of the regime candidate, Nasry Asfura, at 34 percent. Her coalition led in 17 of the country’s 18 departments. The electoral verdict is a decisive repudiation of the outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who had hoped to rig the election for Asfura and maintain control from behind the scenes.

The results will be some relief to the Biden administration, whose policy to handle the surges of refugees at the southern border is failing. One out of every five migrants that the U.S. Border Patrol “encountered” in fiscal year 2021 were from Honduras. Now, many more thousands of Hondurans who would have fled northward if the old regime had rigged the election will give their country another chance. Interviews on Election Day confirmed that people planned to pack their suitcases if fraud had succeeded.

The prodemocracy victory should also calm frazzled nerves at the U.S. State Department. American policy since 2009 has been a disaster, as America looked the other way while a corrupt, violent regime consolidated its control. The final failure came when President Hernández was implicated in a massive drug smuggling case in a New York federal courtroom. This past March, Hernández’s brother, Tony, was convicted of trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. U.S. policy makers shuddered at the prospect that the president himself would be indicted the day after he left office.

The triumph of democracy in Honduras is not being adequately reported in the mainstream American press. If a similar mass movement had won in eastern Europe, or in Venezuela, there would have been wall-to-wall coverage. Instead, the American media barely noticed until the last minute. In particular, New York Times reports were biased. The correspondent Anatoly Kurmanaev didn’t bother to fly down from Mexico City to cover the election—and he downplayed the prodemocracy angle. Rather, he echoed right-wing Latin American talking points, insinuating that Xiomara Castro’s victory is the second coming of Hugo Chávez, and that she has “ambitious socialist proposals.”

In fact, the prodemocracy coalition’s program is cautious and careful. Dana Frank, a former history professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a leading Honduras expert, told me that Castro is a centrist, who would be a moderate Democrat in the United States. Frank explained that under the Hernández regime, basic social services have weakened or even collapsed. “This new government will have to rebuild public education, health care, create some kind of safety net, carry out some modicum of poverty reduction,” she said. She added that an even higher priority is to start “restoring the role of law,” which has been undermined by corruption and gang violence.

President-elect Castro also wants to set up an independent, powerful anti-corruption agency, with support from the United Nations. A similar commission in neighboring Guatemala led to the prosecution of dozens of officials, including a former president, until it was closed down after 12 years.

What’s more, the Castro government will be no threat to the United States. The major American interest in Honduras is the big U.S. military base at Soto Cano, which has between 500 and 1,500 troops stationed there at any one time. The prodemocracy coalition did not call for the base to be closed or even reduced in size.

Honduran fears that the election would be stolen were not paranoia. In 2017, a different prodemocracy candidate was leading on Election Night, until the computer system “failed.” Two days later, Hernández had somehow eked out a narrow victory. Hondurans poured into the streets to protest, but the military and police opened fire, killing more than 20 people. The U.S., shamefully, accepted the results.

This time around, the prodemocracy voters bravely showed up at the polling places, despite the potential for more regime violence; turnout rose from 57 to 69 percent. The landslide was so huge that the Election Day fears were quickly replaced by enthusiasm and nationwide celebration that evening.

The happiness in Honduras was captured in a catchy music video that went viral on YouTube. The merengue tune is called “Juanchi Va Pa Nueva York” (Juanchi Is Going to New York). “Juanchi” is a nickname for outgoing President Hernández, and the lyrics mock him because he could be indicted for drug trafficking and extradited to face trial. The lyrics include:

The gringos are waiting for him,

Juanchi, you are trapped,

And Honduras is celebrating with a huge fiesta.

You converted my country into a narco state.

But democracy in Honduras remains fragile. At a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, reminded the State Department that Honduras has suffered military coups in the past. Merkley, who has vigorously criticized U.S. policy, said, “The United States has to send a powerful message that no military coup will be tolerated. The power elites are deeply entrenched. No one should underestimate how difficult it is when corruption permeates every level of authority in the country.”

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James North

Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.