Why the US condemns Venezuela but is silent on Honduras

In Depth: America’s shifting human rights policy highlights history of double standards

Thousands march in Honduras following disputed presidential election
A protest in Honduras following November’s disputed presidential election
(Image credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

The US has been called out for its double standards on Central and South American human rights issues following the inauguration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez this week.

When Venezuela’s populist anti-American government rigged state gubernatorial elections in October, “the US led a campaign of condemnation and stepped up sanctions”, The Washington Post says.

“But when Honduras’s rightist pro-American president suspiciously reversed what looked like an upset loss in a presidential election a month later, the Trump administration congratulated him.”

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It is not the first time that the US has been accused of turning a blind eye in Honduras - nor of profiting from its Central American foothold.

Honduras: the original banana republic

“Fruit corporations from the US turned Honduras, an impoverished tropical backwater, into a huge banana plantation at the start of the 20th century. They dominated its economy and politics, making it the original ‘banana republic’,” The Guardian reported in 2009.

In recent decades, the US has intervened in military coups there to protect its commercial interests, embedding a conservative, Americanised elite. In the 1980s, for example, Contra guerrillas backed by then-president Ronald Reagan used Honduras as their base to attack Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

Despite Hernandez’s track record, Barack Obama’s administration celebrated the Honduran leader as a partner in fighting gangs, drug traffickers and violence.

“By contrast, Obama has been quick to criticise Venezuelan leaders,” Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote in article for Al Jazeera in 2015.

When Hernandez was inaugurated for his second term on Saturday, there were - once again - accusations of vote rigging, and uproar amid opposition politicians. The Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), a human rights organisation, accused military police of attacking protest leaders, journalists and campaigners.

The US State Department said - once again - that it is working with Honduran political leaders to increase transparency and accountability, but some question its commitment.

“The Trump administration’s silence and passivity has generated all kinds of suspicions that the US has a double standard on democracy and human rights issues,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, told the Miami Herald in December.

“That’s a cancer that destroys US credibility...it allows authoritarian rulers to say that Washington makes its judgments selectively, according to its political interests,” Vivanco added.

A narrow ‘America first’ agenda

So could these double standards backfire on Trump? By turning a blind eye to an autocrat who supports the US, America “loses its moral authority” to denounce others who might pose a threat, argues the Miami Herald.

Autocratic leaders are engaging in “increasingly brazen behaviour - rigging votes, muzzling the press and persecuting opponents - as they dispense with even a fig leaf of democratic practice once offered to placate the US”, says The New York Times’s Declan Walsh.

These leaders “know they run little risk of rebuke from an American president who has largely abandoned the promotion of human rights and democracy in favour of his narrow ‘America First’ agenda”, Walsh adds.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that pursuing American “values” abroad - values such as freedom and human dignity - could “create obstacles” to US security and economic interests, ABC News reports.

On 22 December, the US State Department issued a statement congratulating Hernandez, whose government receives hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid.

“If an anti-American candidate is proclaimed the winner in some other Latin nation, and other governments refuse to respect evidence of irregularities, the Trump administration will have only itself to blame,” says The Washington Post.

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