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.