Honduran president starts new term as fiery protests erupt
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — President Juan Orlando Hernandez was sworn in for a new term in the Honduran capital Saturday, while across town tear gas drifted across flaming barricades in clashes between police and protesters angry over an election the say was marred by fraud.
The head of Congress put the blue-and-white sash of office on Hernandez in the morning ceremony in Tegucigalpa, and the president promised in an address “to begin a process of reconciliation to unite the Honduran family.”
The inauguration came after soldiers and riot police fired tear gas to block thousands of demonstrators from marching to the National Stadium to protest. Masked protesters shot rocks from slingshots and kicked canisters back toward security forces as barricades burned and gas billowed on the streets.
“This is how the dictator oppresses his people,” said opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla, who says the election was stolen and he was the true winner of the vote.
“We remain in the struggle to rescue the country from dictatorship and without recognizing Hernandez as president,” Nasralla told The Associated Press.
Hernandez, a 49-year-old lawyer, is Honduras’ first president to be re-elected — a key point in the protests against him.
The 1982 constitution bars presidents from seeking a new term and conservative politicians deposed a leftist president in 2009 for allegedly even considering re-election. But Hernandez won a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 to get around that prohibition.
Early, pre-dawn returns the morning after the Nov. 26 election showed Nasralla with a significant lead with 57 percent of the votes counted.
Then election authorities all but stopped giving public updates on the count. Following days of delays and computer problems, the trend reversed itself, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal reported that Hernandez had an edge of about 1.5 percent in the final count.
The ensuing political crisis has wracked the Central American nation, with at least 31 people killed in the unrest, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Opposition leaders put the toll at 41.
“We must sit down for dialogue openly and without barriers. ... If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand,” Hernandez said in his address.
Walking along the stadium’s track with first lady Ana Garcia, he smiled and flashed a thumbs-up to supporters in the stands who waved blue flags with white stars.
More than 20 countries have recognized Hernandez as president, but there were none of the usual foreign heads of state present at the inauguration.
“That is not worth anything because the people do not recognize him” as president, said former President Manuel Zelaya, who was removed in the 2009 coup and now leads the Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship, which ran Nasralla as its candidate.
Details of the inaugural ceremony were kept under wraps until Hernandez arrived at the stadium, and authorities had circulated rumors beforehand that it would take place in an auditorium at the Central Bank and be transmitted on large video screens in the arena.
Honduras’ Security Department reported that protesters blocked a highway in the northern province of Colon and attacked police with rocks and sticks. One agent was injured, and four protesters were arrested.
The government said in a statement that unknown persons have toppled electrical towers in the western part of the country, knocking out power there for 48 hours.
In Tegucigalpa, police said protesters stoned the windows of at least six fast-food restaurants. And in Cofradia, north of the capital, police arrested a presumed Nasralla supporter suspected of trying to burn a police station and carrying homemade explosives.