Honduras on the Edge
|Back to Analysis|
|Brian Thompson||August 10th 2009|
|Ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya|
Although the de facto Micheletti regime has stated that it supports the San Jose Accord, events on the ground indicate that it is not pushing for the reinstatement of ousted Honduras President Mihurel Zelaya. Zelaya’s return is complicated by an entrenched interim government; a restoration of the deposed leader would only be possible through extreme international pressure. Zelaya’s border spectacle aimed at keeping the deposed president in the headlines, since his visibility is somewhat fading. Indeed, as Honduras marks a month since Zelaya’s removal from power, the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the Honduran crisis further dim.
Although the tiny and very poor nation has managed to capture the world’s attention for a few brief days in late June, both sides have since entrenched their positions, rendering dialogue all but an impossible proposition. Normality has returned in most of the country and, apart from several road closures by Zelaya supporters, there appears to be little of the street violence which marked the days immediately following Zelaya’s ousting.Honduras is not out of the woods yet, however. Supporters of the deposed president have carried out a series of both peaceful and violent protests in the capital, and some of these demonstrations have been broken up by the National Police. While the initial raw furor over Zelaya’s removal may have subsided, the months ahead most likely will prove to be extremely difficult ones for the Honduran people to endure.
The position of interim president Roberto Micheletti is an unenviable one. An unrecognized leader by practically every nation on earth, the de facto government enjoys a degree of legitimacy at home but suffers from a severe image problem abroad. Despite its definitive lack of international popularity, the Micheletti regime has some reasons to be optimistic. After initially refusing to directly negotiate with the interim government, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced on August 3 that it was contemplating sending a “high-level mission” to Honduras to observe the country’s predicament first-hand. This is something of an about-face from its previous position of not acknowledging or talking to interim authorities in an effort to deny them any legitimacy.
The mission came about after Micheletti called upon Enrique Iglesias, head of the Ibero-American Economic Secretariat, to get involved. On August 4, the OAS announced that it would be sending a fact-finding mission to Honduras in order to better analyze the situation. The organization has still not announced what officials will be included in that delegation, but has hinted that Iglesias may be among the members sent. Other possible members include Costa Rican chancellor Bruno Stagno. The reasons for sending a delegation are quite obvious: After initially refusing to talk to the interim government, the international community realized that, for better or worse, some form of direct dialogue with Honduran authorities was necessary in order to resolve the crisis.
Support for the San Jose Accords?
On July 27, the Honduran Army posted a communique on its website which appeared to endorse a Zelaya return. However, the motives behind this action seemed to suggest a much more complex situation. The military announced that it is supporting the San Jose Accord being promoted by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias as a solution to the country’s political upheaval. This led some to believe that support for the coup was weakening. The seven-point San Jose Accord calls for the restoration of Zelaya, and any backing of the Accord would appear to support a return by the now deposed leader.
Despite the military’s declared support for the peace negotiations, the move is possibly a calculated attempt at demonstrating to the international community that the Honduran armed forces subordinate to civilian authority, and carried out Zelaya’s removal at the behest of the legislature. This would be in keeping with the Micheletti regime’s stated position that the events of June 28 were not a coup, but rather a constitutional transition. By promoting the image of an army that is under civilian control, the interim government is probably hoping to distance its own actions from the military coups of the 1960s and 70s which usually ended with a military junta in power. The army’s pronouncement also could be an effort to give the interim government a measure of international legitimacy. A day later, the Honduran high command reaffirmed its loyalty to the interim government, something a dissenting command structure probably would not do.
Another sign that the Honduran government is not really considering an implementation of the San Jose Accord can be observed in the Honduran Congress’ debate over whether or not to grant Zelaya amnesty for any political crimes he may have committed. Despite the appearance of congressional debate over the matter, there appears to be little hope of such an amnesty measure paving the way for a Zelaya return. There is currently an arrest warrant out for Zelaya in Honduras, and a considerable portion of the population does not support the idea of amnesty for the deposed leader and his exiled ministers. During the last week of July, the motion was submitted to Congress, which created a commission to analyze the proposal. On August 5, Congress rejected amnesty for the deposed leader. This could have been expected, as Congress was one of the branches of government which backed Zelaya’s removal. Micheletti’s deference to Congress on the issue of amnesty could be a way of ‘passing the buck.’ By allowing the legislature to prevent Zelaya’s return, Micheletti can still depict himself as being receptive to the San Jose Accord, even if he has no intention of allowing Zelaya to return to the country and resume his position.
A New York Times article published July 30 claimed that the Micheletti government was seriously considering a Zelaya return. However, this would go against every public pronouncement made by the interim government to date. The interim leader has stated several times that he might support a ‘terceria’, or a third person assuming control of the government until January. He has repeated on several occasions that Zelaya would never be allowed back into the country as president, and that he would never be reinstated as Honduras’ president. As mentioned before, the Micheletti government appears to be going through the motions of acquiescing to the San Jose Accord, but it does not appear to be seriously considering its implementation. It supports some of the points made in the San Jose negotiations, such as the insistence that Zelaya desist from any attempts at constitutional reforms, but does not endorse others. The main sticking point is the restoration of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency. Intransigence on such a basic issue demonstrates that the Micheletti regime has little desire to see the San Jose Accords carried out and is essentially bluffing.
News at Ten
On July 24, the sleepy border post of Las Manos was treated to a bizarre spectacle: Manuel Zelaya and a phalanx of followers, including Venezuelan Foreign Relations minister Nicolas Maduro, were approaching the post, with the intention of crossing into Honduras and linking up with his supporters. The stage was set for a showdown as the Micheletti government had previously stated that Zelaya would be arrested if he set foot in the country. The situation was further complicated by the fact that thousands of Zelaya’s followers were driving out in convoys of their own to Las Manos in order to greet the deposed leader.
The government’s response was to place the department of El Paraiso, where Las Manos is located, under curfew from 6 in the evening to 6 in the morning. This did not stop pro-Zelaya Hondurans from massing along the border and crossing into Nicaragua by way of mountain trails in order to meet up with their leader, who had set up camp just on the other side of the border. Zelaya’s crowning moment came on July 24 when he briefly took a few steps into Honduras and met up with throngs of his supporters at the border. While the act energized his movement, it also underscored how difficult his return would be.
Although the crowd gathered was of considerable size, it was quickly dispersed by Honduran police, and many of Zelaya’s followers were prevented from reaching the border by army patrols. Despite its international isolation, the Micheletti government still has some cards in its hand. It controls the police and armed forces and it enjoys a healthy degree of domestic support. Nevertheless, the interim government’s refusal to budge even in the face of international condemnation will make any restoration of Zelaya to the presidency extremely difficult.
Zelaya’s actions over the following days have proven somewhat confusing. After meeting with their leader, those of his followers who crossed into Nicaragua were caught in a legal limbo. They were Hondurans who could not return home, but, at the same time weren’t Nicaraguan citizens. Zelaya’s response was to organize these followers into what he called a “peaceful resistance army”. Photographs appeared in Honduran dailies of Zelayistas carrying out a series of exercises in a Nicaraguan field. Although the formation of a resistance movement must have lifted the spirits of pro-Zelaya Hondurans that made the trek out to Las Manos, it is highly doubtful that an army composed of untrained citizens would be sufficient to significantly alter the situation on the ground. However, the event at Las Manos served its purpose, which was to keep Zelaya in the international headlines.
After the initial barrage of news coverage aimed at Honduras, international interest appears to have subsided. Zelaya’s best hope for a return to power is to sustain attention on the situation in Honduras. Despite his backing by virtually every nation and international institution in the world, he suffers from an entrenched domestic opposition which will require intense international pressure to unseat. By orchestrating events such as the one at Las Manos, he at least ensures that he remains in the international news cycle and that his cause does not disappear from view. His “media show”, as it was dubbed by opposition newspaper La Prensa, appears to have had its desired effect. On July 30, U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens met with Zelaya in Managua, Nicaragua. Although it is unclear what Llorens and Zelaya discussed, it caused the deposed leader to abandon his base camp on the Honduras-Nicaraguan border.
The American position, ambiguous and contradictory at best, was somewhat clarified on August 5 in a State Department letter to Foreign Relations Subcommittee ranking head Senator Richard Lugar (R-I). In the letter, the State Department announced that economic sanctions were not being considered as a viable solution to the conflict. It indicated that U.S. policy was not aimed at supporting a particular individual, but rather finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. The letter will no doubt be seen by the interim government as a sign of U.S. support for Micheletti, who will attempt to wait out international pressure until the already scheduled November presidential elections. Zelaya also called on the U.S. to ‘tighten its fist,’ on the interim authorities and pressure them to accept his return.
The situation in Honduras will require a great degree of cooperation from all sides if any deal is to be brokered. However, one thing is clear: Rash actions from either side cannot be permitted. Several world leaders have announced that any solution to the Honduran crisis must be negotiated through peaceful means and not through force of arms. As tensions continue to rise and and if both sides take to the streets, the death toll will mount. Two people have died in clashes between police and demonstrators, and this number will only increase as long as the conflict remains unresolved. The Honduran political crisis will only be resolved when Hondurans of all political stripes take it upon themselves to resolve their differences in a serious manner and with a mature sense of perspective.
Brian Thompson is an analyst with the Council on Hemispheric Relations.