From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Honduras Marks Coup Anniversary
A year after the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, Honduras continues its struggle to recover from the political fallout. “In spite of massive international attention and multilateral efforts in the days and months that followed, reconciliation—both domestically and internationally—remains elusive,” says an article in World Politics Review. President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo acknowledged that Zelaya’s overthrow constituted a coup, but his efforts at reconciliation have failed to win over key countries such as Brazil and Venezuela and regain entry into the Organization of American States. As the country marked the coup’s anniversary on June 28, Lobo expressed fears about plots against his own government while the exiled Zelaya charged that U.S. Southern Command played a role in his overthrow.
Concerns persist over human rights violations in Honduras. Twenty-seven members of U.S. Congress signed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging an assessment of human rights in the Central American country to determine whether Washington should, once again, suspend aid.
Read an AS/COA analysis on the long-term economic costs of the coup.
This week, from June 6 to 8, the Organization of American States (OAS) will hold its General Assembly with all the region’s foreign ministers and secretaries gathering in
Different country, same divisions, on different sides. As with the outcome at the last OAS General Assembly, some artful diplomacy could produce a positive step that will finally--for the good of regional diplomacy and Honduras--help to move this process along.
Laura Chinchilla, president-elect of Costa Rica, urged a quick return to the Organization of American States for Honduras, which was expelled following the June 2009 military ouster of Manuel Zelaya. Chinchilla, who takes office on May 8, met with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo in Tegucigalpa on Monday during a three-day tour of Central America.
The first woman to be elected president of Costa Rica also urged her fellow Central American leaders to support Honduras during a stop in San Salvador, El Salvador—hours before she arrived in in Tegucigalpa. She said it is especially important that the Inter-American Development Bank extends credit to Honduras.
Lobo met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who has yet to recognize Lobo's presidency, in Managua last Friday, to discuss reopening the stalled process of Central American integration. A meeting in Guatemala City between Ortega and the presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador to discuss reincorporating Honduras into the Sistema de Integración Centroamericano, however, was postponed on Sunday because the leaders could not agree on the agenda.
Chinchilla’s three-day Central America tour concludes today in Nicaragua.
On Tuesday, Honduras’ Congress approved a decree handed down in December by interim President Roberto Micheletti to end Honduras’ membership in the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas (ALBA), a regional organization started by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Presidential spokesman Rafael Pineda, in an apparent reference to Venezuela, explained that the decision to leave was taken because “some of the countries in the organization have not treated Honduras with the respect it deserves.” Pineda also cited Venezuelan threats during the initial stages of the Honduran coup last year to invade Honduras in support of deposed President Manuel Zelaya.
Honduras joined the regional organization on August 25, 2008, during a meeting between former President Zelaya and President Chávez. However, it was not until October 9 that the membership agreement was ratified by the Honduran Congress—then, ironically, presided over by Mr. Micheletti himself.
Since the June 28th coup removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from power, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti has vigorously defended the upcoming elections as the way out of the political crisis. In recent weeks, the central question has become whether the international community will recognize the upcoming presidential elections. With the breakdown of negotiations and Zelaya’s recent declaration that he will not accept restitution from the Congress (itself increasingly unlikely), the Organization of American States (OAS) will almost certainly not send election observers. Conversely, Panama, Colombia and the United States have indicated they will recognize the elections, which undermines the previous international consensus on the Honduran crisis.
Meanwhile, last week, independent presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes pulled out of the race because President Zelaya had not yet been restored. Cesar Ham, the other pro-Zelaya candidate, will decide this week whether to end his presidential bid, as well.
But the other major story last week was that Rodolfo Padilla Sunseri, mayor of San Pedro Sula (the country’s second-largest city and commercial hub), has pulled out of his re-election race. This serves as an important reminder that these elections will determine—in addition to the President and the 128 members of Congress—the mayors of all 298 Honduran municipalities. Padilla Sunseri’s resignation reveals the importance of municipal politics a lens for understanding the last five months in Honduras. Honduran municipalities aligned with Zelaya have been hit hardest by the coup, and their plight reflects the political divisions within the country, the duplicity of the Micheletti regime and the difficult decision facing pro-Zelaya candidates.
Minor miracles can happen, after all. After beating El Salvador, Honduras qualified for the World Cup when the United States scored a goal to tie Costa Rica in the final minute. In seconds, Hondurans’ emotions flipped 180 degrees—from exasperation at thinking they had come up just short to jubilation at qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. From coffee country to the Caribbean coast, Hondurans celebrated with fireworks, flags, honking cars, and screams of joy.
As one announcer remarked, one can only hope that the country’s political leaders follow the national team’s cue and make this a great week for Honduras. And, against the odds, a political resolution may be on its way. In recent days, the Guaymuras Dialogue has brought relative calm to the political crisis. Progress has remained frustratingly slow, but each team seems to have brought a welcome dose of maturity to the negotiating table. The focus on the negotiators—none of them show-stealers—has provided a refreshing change-of-pace from Micheletti and Zelaya’s tired rants and reckless stunts.
On Wednesday afternoon, the negotiators temporarily withdrew to consult with Zelaya and Micheletti. Victor Meza, one of Zelaya’s three negotiators, claimed that negotiators had reached a provisional agreement on the final point of contention—Zelaya’s possible restitution—and simply had to get final approval from Zelaya and Micheletti. Meanwhile, Micheletti’s negotiators said they had completed 90 percent of the agenda and would likely conclude matters by the week’s end, but denied that they had reached such an agreement.
Now, rumors are swirling. Some say that all that remains is for negotiators to agree on the date of Zelaya’s return. Others say that both sides have agreed to renounce the presidency and hand over power to a third party. Declarations and denials abound; the truth remains elusive.
Hondurans had high hopes for two things last week: qualifying for the World Cup and settling the political crisis. Unfortunately for the catrachos (Hondurans), they came up short in both. And the country’s two failures mirrored one another.
High hopes dominated
First, high expectations. Last week, the mainstream press (which supports Roberto Micheletti) and the country’s politicians made the end of the political crisis appear all but guaranteed. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—this became the welcome mantra after weeks of violence. But, as in soccer, political expectations can mask reality.
Events in Honduras have taken a turn for the worse in the past ten days, and, sadly, there have been no capable leaders from whom Hondurans can expect progress. Roberto Micheletti and Manuel Zelaya have shown themselves to be political novices without the maturity and intellect to guide this country out of this crisis.
De facto President Roberto Micheletti can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he wants to be a good democrat or a good autocrat. First, last week, Micheletti let the military and police run amok in the capital. The result: hundreds of people detained and injured and as many as 10 killed. Then, on Sunday, Micheletti declared a state of exception in the country, suspending for up to 45 days (with the possibility of renewal) the inviolability of personal freedom, freedom of assembly, free speech, freedom of movement, and due process. He then proceeded to raid and shut down the two national television and radio outlets that supported Zelaya. Micheletti’s government also refused to allow entry to an Organization of American States (OAS) delegation to enter the country and demanded that Brazil define Zelaya’s status as visitor.
So far, good autocrat, right? But Micheletti hasn’t even been able to get that part right. Less than one day after declaring the state of exception, Micheletti turned on his heels, apologized to Hondurans and said he would try to lift certain provisions this week. Why? First, he received heavy international criticism. As a State Department spokesman lamented, “I think it's time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel. With every action they keep on making the hole deeper.” Second, Honduran congressmen and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal informed Micheletti that the state of exception would leave only two weeks for free campaigning before the scheduled elections, for which they desperately want international legitimacy. Shockingly, it seems that Micheletti—Honduras’ loudest election cheerleader—had not even considered this.
Honduras’ deposed President Mel Zelaya was here in Washington the week prior to Labor Day urging the United States, without a hint of irony, to re-install him in power as soon as possible. At the same time, he told a late summer audience that as the diplomatic process grinds on without clear prospects for resolution, he was building support for another attempt to re-enter Honduras. His last two attempts having failed, first by air and then by land, his next option would appear to be by sea, a la Fidel’s famous journey in the Granma. At the very least, this would do away with a reprise of the Honduran version of the hokey-pokey (you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out, you put your left foot in and then you shake it all about….), or the Python-esque flying circus aspects of his first attempt in July. On a more serious note, though, during his visit Zelaya also pointedly refused to speculate to the Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan whether or not violence would be a part of his ramped up strategy of return.
Nonetheless, on September 3 the State Department announced the termination of assistance to Honduras and revoked additional visas. Prejudging the November elections, Department spokesman Ian Kelly also said that the United States would not be able to support their outcome, suggesting that they would be illegitimate unless a positive conclusion of the Arias process had already occurred.
In a logical world, President Oscar Arias’ seven-point plan for resolving the Honduran impasse is the best—and perhaps only—way forward after the Honduran coup. In many ways it reflects the things that we have promoted on this website: move up the date of the elections (in Arias’ plan to October), allow President Zelaya to return with a significantly curtailed role in a coalition government, an amnesty for the charges against him pre-June 28, and a commitment by the ousted president not to press for re-election. Pretty straightforward.
And it almost got the parties there—except for the de facto government of former Congressman Micheletti which has dug in its heels, refusing to allow the ousted president to return. There are three major problems in their position, though: 1) it only deepens Honduras’ isolation; 2) it will only serve to radicalize Zelaya and the alliance of the more extremist presidents who support him; and 3) the coup itself is not as popular as the de facto government wants to portray it to the outside world. (Which really shouldn’t matter anyway because it was, in fact, a coup even if orchestrated by institutions.) The truth is that coups have received popular support. Yes, even the Chilean coup of 1973 was supported by a broad segment of the population. That didn’t make it right, though—nor certainly did it justify the bloodshed that followed. (This is a side note to those who want to argue that this wasn’t a coup: there have been plenty of coups that haven’t followed the classic playbook and have enjoyed both popular and institutional support. But they were still coups.)
Concerning the first, on Monday, July 20, 2009, the European Union announced that it was suspending $92 million in assistance. This is on top of the $270 million World Bank loan and $200 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan that have been put on hold, the U.S. assistance to the Honduran military and the more than $180 million in U.S. bilateral assistance that hangs in the balance. And there’s the suspension from the OAS, the condemnation of the UN, and the pulling of most foreign ambassadors from Tegucigalpa—and Honduras looks like it’s become a political pariah and economic loner. There’s also the issue of remittances, which represent 25 percent of Honduras’ meager GDP. If the de facto government hews to the original timetable for elections in November and the transfer of power in January, it’s going to leave its people pretty high and dry. And let me venture a guess here: at that point for most Hondurans, living in the third poorest country in Central America and the Caribbean, the coup and the government that came in its wake are going to look a heck of a lot less inspiring.
Concerning the second, as the clock ticks and Zelaya’s return is delayed—under any form—the new-found populist is threatening again to go back to the silliness and rhetoric orchestrated by his puppeteer Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. We’ve already seen this before with the irresponsible (though unfortunately ultimately deadly) stunt he performed on July 5 when he tried to return and the military blocked his way. When that failed he returned to a more sensible fold: the U.S. and a mediated solution through Arias. As the possibilities appear to be closing down, Zelaya is returning to his position of going back to Honduras as soon as possible with or without an agreement. Maybe it’s just a—misguided—negotiating tactic. But it does indicate that he could resort again to the destructive, polarizing and deadly tactics of before.
The de facto government shouldn’t have to yield to such irresponsible posturing. But it demonstrates that beyond the Micheletti government’s unconstructive intransigence the success of any negotiated solution will depend on Zelaya accepting a symbolic return to power. Ultimately, that’s all he’ll get—a shortened term and constrained powers—but it will be what is necessary to restore some modicum of institutionality to Honduras and demonstrate the hemisphere’s and international community’s capacity to enforce constitutional processes. But is Zelaya enough of a stateman to do this?
I wouldn’t hold my breath, especially as time goes on. But this should be put to the test for world public opinion to see. It all boils down to whether Zelaya prefers to be seen as a responsible symbol of democracy for the world community or a political martyr. The latter would allow him to someday stage a comeback as the wronged advocate of the poor ousted by the elite. This may seem like a stretch now, but should things go south in the next administration, with the financial and rhetorical support of President Chávez, Zelaya could return as a populist symbol. In other words, the opposition’s intransigence today could lead to their being steamrolled later, as Zelaya roars back as a victim of the past and champion of the poor. Letting him return now in a defanged form will help head this off.
Third, as unpopular as President Zelaya was in office, the coup has split the country down the middle. At the time of his removal, President Zelaya was enjoying a measly 25 percent approval rating. Today according to polls, 46 percent of the population opposes the coup. Should Honduras’ economic and political isolation drag on, support for the coup will only decline further. Some governments and observers have even the questioned the legitimacy of the de facto government to convene new elections. Worse case scenario? Without a compromise that brings in a more legitimate government to oversee the November or October elections (whenever they’re held) Honduran citizens may be looking at another four years of isolation. Unlikely, but a disaster should it happen.
In short, for all the flaws of President Zelaya (and there are many) the short-(and even medium-) term future of Honduras hinges on these negotiations. There are plenty of reasons for either side to dig in its heels. But neither Honduras’ future, the interests of its citizens, or the rule of law internationally would be served by their doing so. Let’s just hope for the sake of their country they do accept something close to what’s on the table now.