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Hondurans are hopeful and skeptical as votes for president are counted

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Honduras now, where an opposition leftist leader continues to hold a double-digit lead in yesterday's presidential election. The official result may not come for another month, but Hondurans are celebrating what appears to be a victory for democracy in a country more accustomed to violence and corruption. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Elisa Flores and her mother headed to the polls in their middle-class neighborhood in the Honduran capital yesterday.

ELISA FLORES: We're ready for change in this country.

KAHN: Both went for Xiomara Castro, a former first lady and leftist. Flores pushed her grandmother's wheelchair up the steep concrete street to a local elementary school outfitted with nearly a dozen polling places.

FLORES: I think we've had a very long time of being ruled by a class that doesn't really care about the people, about the people with poor needs.

KAHN: Flores, who is 25 and works in the government's judicial system, says she is really hopeful for the future and that her vote will count.

FLORES: I think that my voice matters and everyone's voices matters, and the results should reflect that.

KAHN: Her grandmother Daisy Ajuero, who is 77, is not so confident.

DAISY AJUERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's bad. There is no democracy here," she says. Elder Hondurans have a lot of reasons to be skeptical. Since transitioning from military rule in the 1980s, the Honduran democratic experience has been rocky at best. In 2009, the elected president was escorted out of the country by the military in his pajamas. Successive governments became increasingly corrupt, with the last eight years of President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his national party embroiled in multiple scandals. Hernandez's brother is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison on drug trafficking charges. Hernandez denies allegations that he aided the international operation. Sick of the corruption, Hondurans yesterday came out in droves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: A poll worker unfolds cast ballots, calling out the name of the presidential pick in a cavernous gym turned into multiple voting sites yesterday. Young voters fueled turnout to more than 60%. This was the first time voting for 24-year-old Evans Varella.

EVANS VARELLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He also went for the opposition leader Castro, saying he hopes change is coming. He says he had to put his faith in something. That's quite a leap, given that opinion polling shows Hondurans have the lowest level of faith in democracy in Latin America, and so many of late have been voting with their feet. Tens of thousands of Hondurans have been leaving the country for the U.S. in recent months. The pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes last year have left the economy in ruins. Eric Olson, a Central America expert with the Seattle International Foundation, says given the region's tilt toward authoritarianism, especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Honduras looks like a bright spot.

ERIC OLSON: And the U.S. needs to take that seriously and find every possible way to support this movement towards support for democratic change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: An ice cream vendor pedals down the dirt roads past the low-slung block houses in the dangerous Rivera Hernandez neighborhood of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras. Araceli Mejia Alvarado sits in her front dirt yard. She says her husband was murdered three years ago, and the police have done nothing to find his killers.

ARACELI MEJIA ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The 47-year-old single mother of three says democracy was lost a long time ago in Honduras. A Christian nonprofit group is helping to investigate her husband's murder. She thinks about immigrating to the U.S. But she voted for the opposition, too, and says for now, she's going to stay put.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEX'S "GET IN YR SQUADS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.