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Honduras: time to choose

Adam Isacson
27 July 2009

There's a clear reason why every country in Latin America so quickly lined up against the military coup in Honduras on 28 June 2009: because it was terrifying.

President Manuel Zelaya's forced removal revived a practice that most in the region had thought obsolete after a quarter century of transition from military rule to democracy. It had come to be taken for granted that civilian leaders would no longer turn to the military to settle political or constitutional disputes.

Adam Isacson is director of programmes at the Center for International Policy, Washington DC

Also by Adam Isacson in openDemocracy:

"The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

"The Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador tangle" (14 March 2008)

"Colombia: a miraculous rescue, and what comes next" (7 July 2008)

"Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

"Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate" (29 May 2009)

The sight of soldiers surrounding the presidential palace in the centre of Tegucigalpa and forcing the pajama-clad president from office at gunpoint brought back evil memories. In a region where elites had largely abstained from turning to the military to depose elected leaders, it also threatened a chilling return to the past by making this option seem viable again.

Manuel Zelaya is open to criticism on several grounds. He has not been governing his country particularly well, as reflected in low domestic approval-ratings; he has proved to be something of a cynical opportunist, suddenly (for example) coming out as a supporter of Hugo Chávez in order to secure Venezuelan aid; his behaviour in the weeks before the coup was certainly disruptive and on some grounds probably illegal.

But what matters more than these political judgments is that Honduras has a constitution and institutions, and procedures for dealing with crises like the one inspired by Zelaya's ill-advised re-election bid. The rule of law would require following these procedures, and hold the president to account under due process to establish if he broke the law.

Honduras's political and economic elites - which appear to hold sway in the legislature, the judiciary and the military - chose not to use these procedures. Instead, they deployed soldiers to "solve" the problem - and thus violated a core precept of central America's post-cold-war transition to democracy. They went on to break Honduran law themselves: by sending the president into exile, reading an obviously forged resignation-letter on the floor of congress, carrying out mass arrests, and suppressing protests.

The last offer

The Barack Obama administration, in its "post-ideological" effort to "reset" relations with Latin America, seems to understand that. President Obama said it well on 7 July, while on his trip to Russia: "Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies. We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders."

The Obama administration has taken steps that would have been unthinkable during the cold war and probably during the George W Bush administration: non-recognition of the coup government, support for Honduras's suspension from the Organisation of American States (OAS), the freezing of military aid (totalling $16.5 million), tough language from President Obama himself, and explicit support for the efforts of Costa Rica's president, the Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias, to mediate the dispute.

Latin America has been treated to the sight of a US government opposing a rightwing military coup against a leader critical of the United States. The message this sends is overwhelmingly positive.

The Arias process, however, has come under fire on the region's left. The argument against it is that the talks have dragged on since 9 July without finding a solution; they call for compromise instead of Zelaya's unconditional return; they may be allowing the coup leaders to buy time; and they give the impression that the US state department is backing the mediation in order to avoid having to take stronger measures against the de facto regime.

Also on Honduras's turmoil in openDemocracy:

Ismael Moreno, "Honduras: behind the crisis" (1 July 2009)

Nonetheless, the talks provide the best current hope for a peaceful reversal of the coup. Moreover, they have so far improved Zelaya's moral standing and damaged that of the coup government. President Arias made a seven-point proposal for Zelaya's return; the recommendations included holding elections a month earlier than planned (October instead of November), an across-the-board amnesty, and a cessation of any re-election effort. Zelaya accepted these points, but the representatives of Honduras's de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, rejected them on 19 July and abandoned the negotiations.

The talks reconvened on 22 July. That evening, Arias submitted to the different sides a document called the "San José accord". This revised, eleven-point plan provides for the agreed return of Manuel Zelaya to Honduras on 24 July. The pro-coup negotiators initially promised to submit this to the Honduran congress, but overall the immediate reaction of both sides to the document has been negative. 

The five options

The outcome of the Oscar Arias process is uncertain as this article is being written, though the reported rejection by representatives of the coup government and Manuel Zelaya confirms the gap between them. If the Costa Rican president's initiative does not move the process forward, the United States government must follow through with even tougher measures against the coup.

It has at least five options. First, it could recall the ambassador, Hugo Llorens, one of few foreign ambassadors in Tegucigalpa who has yet to be withdrawn. Second, Washington could also start using the word "coup" more frequently and unequivocally to describe what happened on 28 June.

Third, the US could include freezing some or all of the $180 million in economic assistance it has already pledged to Honduras. The European Union imposed such a measure on 20 July when it suspended €63 million (over $90 million) in budget-support assistance. Indeed, US law requires a freeze of economic aid in response to coups. Yet it is a blunt instrument: it would mean stopping valuable social programmes (to provide potable water, fight childhood diseases, or provide basic food security) and withdrawing Peace Corps volunteers.

Also in openDemocracy on politics in central America:

Marielos Monzón, "Guatemala: journalism under pressure" (25 September 2005)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long walk to democracy" (25 May 2006)

Mark Joyce, "The wager of Panama" (31 May 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, "Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, " Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, "Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)

Sergio Ramirez, "Nicaragua: heartbeat of protest" (1 September 2008)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: living with insecurity" (13 May 2009)

In this respect, a freeze in trade ties could bring quicker results in a country that depends on the United States for 70% of its export market. Honduras's business community, much of which supports the coup, would suffer most. At the same time, a protracted halt of trading links would lead to thousands of workers being thrown out of their jobs, increasing the country's already desperate poverty.

Fourth, Washington could directly target the individuals who planned and carried out the Tegucigalpa coup. This would entail identifying the coup's key participants and most vocal supporters, establishing whether they hold assets in the United States, and if so freezing them; and denying US visas to any in this group.

Fifth, the US could definitively end its military connections with Honduras. The Honduran army officers who are attending the former School of the Americas - where Honduras is a top "feeder" country - would have to leave. The US military has had a detachment - currently 600 troops - at the Palmerola military base since the early 1980s. The US could withdraw this contingent, or at the very least halt all reserve rotations to the facility.

Which of these options, or which mix of them, will the US adopt? The fourth (targeting) would make most sense, while the fifth (a military breach) is also compelling: military bonds would become increasingly embarrassing if Honduras continues to be in effect a military-supported dictatorship.

It is natural that there is some debate in Washington about how strong the US measures against the post-coup government in Honduras should be. More surprising, there is also a debate about whether the US government should be taking any measures at all - which, on the conservative side of the US political spectrum, shades into a questioning of whether the country should be supporting Honduras's new rulers.

The right's failure

There are political and ideological reasons why so many voices on the right - in a disappointing repudiation of Latin America's democratic progress and in defiance of the unanimous position of the region's governments - are going so far as aggressively endorsing the Tegucigalpa coup.

The conservatives' vigorous condemnation of Hugo Chávez and his influence in the region fuels their vociferous criticism of the Barack Obama administration's support for Manuel Zelaya's restoration, which they see as equivalent to support for the entire pro-Chávez bloc in Latin America. In a host of outlets - including the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times; in columns by former officials in the George W Bush administration responsible for Latin America policy, such as Otto Reich and Roger Noriega; and in the broadcast media and blogosphere -   US conservatives are making clear that their opposition to Hugo Chávez is more powerful an instinct than principled defence of the democratic rule of law.

The support for the overthrow of democracy in Honduras is found at senior political levels too. On 8 July, four Republican senators held a press conference supporting the coup and condemning Zelaya, and the following day met with representatives of the de facto government. Two ranking Republicans on influential foreign-affairs committees in the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, have (respectively) lobbed the state department to restore military aid to Honduras and sponsored a non-binding resolution that singles out Zelaya for blame.

On 21 July, the Republican senator Jim DeMint employed an infrequently used legislative manoeuvre to place a "hold" on the pending nominations of two key Obama administation officials with Latin America responsibilities: Arturo Valenzuela (the nominee for assistant secretary of state for western-hemisphere affairs) and the incumbent of that post Thomas Shannon (who is awaiting approval to be the next US ambassador to Brazil). Moreover, DeMint is demanding that secretary of state Hillary Clinton meet with Honduran de facto government representatives and "reassess her position" on the crisis.

Some of the US conservatives' criticisms of Manuel Zelaya's behaviour, and more broadly some of their points about the steady deterioration of democratic institutions in (for example) Venezuela and Nicaragua, deserve to be aired. But these politicians, former officials and commentators have made a huge error by supporting the removal of an elected leader via an illegal procedure enforced by the same military that ruled Honduras until the 1980s. This is not only wrong in principle, it has disastrous consequences for the image of the United States throughout Latin America; for their "defeat-Chavismo-by-any-means necessary" argument recalls some of the worst episodes of US relations with the region, such as Washington's support for the coups that deposed elected governments in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973).

The US right of the period justified those cold-war coups by claiming that they stopped or contained the expansion of Soviet power in the region. Its successors today justify the Honduran coup on the grounds that it is a rebuff to an elected leader with socialist-authoritarian tendencies in Venezuela, a country of 26 million people. The problem with this argument, then and now, is that the use of and support for non-democratic methods deprives the incoming government of any integrity; compromises the US's credentials and relationships with Latin America; and is absolutely the wrong way to loosen the grip on power even of those (like Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega) who have a dubious democratic record.

The regrettable result is that the US's conservative opposition has no clear narrative for democracy-promotion in Latin America. The critics have (for example) nothing to say about President Arias's proposals, nor offer any other solutions that might reduce the risk of violence. They could be encouraging the coup government to give ground and reach a compromise; instead, like their nemeses Chávez and Ortega, they polarise the discussion and worsen the confrontation. In the end, their stance is gift to their moderate adversaries: for they have ceded the ground of pragmatism to Barack Obama and Oscar Arias.

The tough choice  

A pragmatism of attitude is essential to resolving Honduras's crisis. But it must be backed by a pragmatic solution that is also tough and clear in what it does and does not support. This solution must, for example, restore Manuel Zelaya to the presidency while denying his ambition to remain in power beyond 2009; it must oppose any effort by the deposed president to encourage violence in Honduras (see Ismael Moreno, "Honduras: behind the crisis", 1 July 2009).

What comes next for Honduras? If the Arias process breaks down, the possibility of violence - even "civil war", in President Arias's words - will grow. Even if it continues, the coup government may hope to delay it and allow it to drag on until the scheduled elections on 29 November approach. Honduras's new rulers may hope that international interest and pressure will wither, and that foreign governments will come to see the elections as a chance for a "clean slate".

The OAS has pledged not to recognise any election that takes place under the de facto government. The Barack Obama administration must clearly adopt the same position. The coup plotters will be all the more emboldened if they perceive the United States as being weak or uncertain in its commitment to democracy in Honduras.

This makes the "San José accord" and its deadline of 24 July 2009 vital. If there is no decisive progress by the weekend of 25 July (as now seems certain), and if the crisis escalates further (as seems very likely), the US government will need to adopt tougher measures of the kind outlined above: sanctions targeted at coup supporters, cutting some economic aid, the further severing of military ties, and possibly the withdrawal of the US ambassador.

Washington's response to the unfolding Honduran events has far more than immediate or domestic significance. The nature of the US government's response will strongly affect any hope President Obama has of bringing a "fresh start" to US relations with Latin America. To act toughly (for what may turn out to be a few months) towards the usurpers of power in Honduras - a country that, even in the most fevered imagining of the political right, is not important in strategic terms - would cost the US little; but it would have three enormous rewards.

It would be in itself the right thing to do. It would show real commitment to the principle of the rule of law and of democracy in Latin America. And it would isolate those whose blinding ideology leads them to support the coup government and in the process conjure a frightening prospect: that military institutions can once again become the final arbiter of Latin American politics.

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