So what’s the big deal about Honduras’s election?


TEGUCIGALPA — It’s not a controversial argument that the November 24 general election is the most important Central American election of the year, if not the most important since 2009, for the region.  But it’s certainly of vital importance for US foreign policy — and much more than the three additional upcoming elections next spring in Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panamá).USflaghonduras flag icon

The coup that overthrew former president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 was in many ways the first important foreign policy crisis for the administration of US president Barack Obama.  Views differ incredibly as to whether Obama and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton succeeded in handling the crisis.  Though the US government joined virtually the entire international community in condemning the coup and voicing support for Zelaya’s return to office, the United States ultimately backed down on threats to refuse to recognize the November 2009 election, despite threatening not to recognize those elections in talks with Honduras’s interim president between June 2009 and January 2010, Roberto Micheletti.

It was clear that top US policymakers weren’t happy with Zelaya’s increasing turn toward stridently anti-American leftist regimes, including Venezuela, which was then under the leadership of Hugo Chávez, and Zelaya’s decision to join the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA, Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) was a turn away from the United States and toward Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and others in the region.  While Zelaya would be a fool to turn away the favorable terms of Chávez’s Petrocaribe scheme that subsidizes fuel (50% down, 50% to be paid far off in the future), and even his conservative successor continued to accept Petrocaribe fuel, he pulled Honduras far closer to the hardcore left than it had ever been in its history.

As the subsequent post-Zelaya elections approached, however, it was clear that the United States was more comfortable with the impending victory of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the candidate of the Partido Nacional (PN, National Party).  When Lobo Sosa (pictured above with Obama) won that election, US-Honduran relations went back to business as usual — and then some.

Honduras is, in many ways, the key to US policy in Central America.  Its Soto Cano air force base is a key military transport point between the United States and the rest of Latin America — the air base itself came into modern existence in 1981, when the US government used Honduras as a staging point for Contra incursions against the Soviet-backed Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.  Don’t let its relatively small size fool you, either.  If you think a country with a population of just eight million people can’t be relevant to US foreign policy, just look at Israel — it’s a country with just six million.

Four years after the mixed US response to the coup, Hondurans are preparing to elect a new president and all 128 members of the Congreso Nacional (National Congress), and the consequences couldn’t be greater for US-Honduran relations.

Current polls show that it’s a three person-race, with the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of the National Congress, essentially tied with Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the former president.  Castro de Zelaya is running as the candidate of a broad leftist movement, the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP, National Popular Resistance Front), which is now organized as a full political party, the Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, Liberty and Refoundation Party).  Lagging behind is attorney Mauricio Villeda, the candidate of Zelaya’s former party, the Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party) and the son of a former social democratic Liberal president in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Though Castro de Zelaya isn’t going out of her way to disparage the United States, and the United States hasn’t endorsed Hernández directly, US-Honduran relations will be much trickier if Castro de Zelaya wins the election.

But that doesn’t mean relations will necessarily be worse for the Honduran people.   Continue reading So what’s the big deal about Honduras’s election?

Toncontín blues: of airports and infrastructure in Honduras


I’ve now flown into Tegucigalpa’s main airport, Toncontín, twice — once in a Embraer 190 and again in a small puddle-jumper from Roatán, part of the Bay Islands that lie just off Honduras’s North Coast.honduras flag icon

Frankly, I was expecting a much more eventful landing from everything I’d been led to believe.

Even with an expanded runway as of May 2009, Toncontín has quite a bit of notoriety — its difficult approach and relatively short runway makes it one of the world’s trickiest airports.  Opened in 1934, Toncontín featured just a 6,112-foot runway and, as expanded, it features a single runway extended to over 7,000 feet. That’s not incredibly short, necessarily — it compares to the runways at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Washington’s Reagan National Airport.

The problem is that Teguicgalpa is a valley that lies within essentially a 360-degree ring of mountains.  So as you approach Toncontín, you approach a ridge of mountains that swiftly gives way to the valley, with sprawl following soon thereafter.  The approach takes a broad right turn that follows a counterclockwise swirl around the valley, followed by a sharp left, counterclockwise turn as you descend.  It’s a little jarring, but no more so than landing, say, essentially along the water — just like at LGA or DCA — where you descend slowly into the water until at the last moment you hit the runway.


But it’s caused problems in the past — in May 2008, TACA Flight 390 overran the runway and crashed into a street.  The accident killed just five people, but it highlighted the dangers of Toncontín, which is routinely called one of the world’s most dangerous airports.  The TACA incident is one of a dozen of such accidents since the 1960s.

I mention Toncontín because it’s a huge infrastructure issue — historically, getting into and out of the Honduran capital has been more difficult than, say, flying into Managua or Panamá City.  That’s not in itself a reason for financial centers to develop there and not in Tegucigalpa, but it doesn’t help.

In fact, it’s an issue of unfinished business from the former administration of Manuel Zelaya, whose push to extend Toncontín’s runway was completed in May 2009, just a month before the coup that ousted him from office (for reasons other than his infrastructure goals).  But when he was pushed from power, Zelaya hoped to open a new airport at Soto Cano Air Force Base, which US military personnel have been using for decades, most infamously in the 1980s when the United States backed Contra forces based in Honduras against the Soviet-backed Nicaraguan Sandinistas — it’s also known as Palmerola, and it’s closer to Honduras’s old capital before 1880, Comayagua, and to Honduras’s second city San Pedro Sula.

But since Zelaya’s ouster, the airport move has been a less pressing issue.  Though Honduras’s outgoing right-wing president Porfirio Lobo Sosa has confirmed the long-term goal of moving the capital’s major international airport from Toncontín to Palmerola, it’s still nowhere near fruition.