Despite a political agreement anounced two weeks ago to restore ousted Honduran president Manual Zelaya to power, the military-backed regime of Robert Micheletti apparently has no intention of letting the deposed leader return to office, infomed sources say. In fact, the regime is apparently using Zelaya’s promised return as little more than a PR ploy to neutralize domestic and international opposition and to build diplomatic support for the country’s upcoming presidential election.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the US State Department — which had previously sided with Zelaya and the Organization of American States (OAS) in their efforts to get the illegally deposed president reinstated — knew all along that the de facto regime was planning to renege on the deal, but under pressure from US conservatives and from influential Democratic lobbysists, acquiesced in the regime’s manuever.
Now, unless the de facto regime moves quickly restore Zelaya to power — which appears highly unlikely — the country’s bitter 4-month old political crisis could be unresolvable, experts say.
For the Honduran regime, its latest political gambit – essentially, a “coup within a coup” – could prove costly. Most of the international community, including key US allies in Europoe and Latin America, are on record saying they will not recognize the legitimacy of the November 29 presidential election in Honduras unless Zelaya is first reinstated.
And Democrats, most of whom have supported Zelaya’s return, could decide to continue the current suspension of US aid to Honduras or even impose tighter conditions that would completely isolate the regime and further undermine the nation’s already weak economy.
It’s still unclear how or why the latest political crisis transpired. On paper, the two sides apparently had reached an agreement that would have let Zelaya finish out his full term in office – with greatly restricted powers. In many respects, the deal was a victory for the Honduran right, which had not only ousted Zelaya illegally, but, in the face of widespread diplomatic protest, had successfully stalled his return to power.
All the right had to do was agree to let Zelaya return to office ever-so-briefly – a mere three weeks, plus time for a political transition – and its worries would have been over.
But the October 30 deal, as written, made Zelaya’s return contingent upon a formal vote by the Honduran Congress. And apparently that was too big a temptation for the right to resist. While Zelaya assumed that the reinstatement vote would be largely pro forma, and would come soon, Congress began stalling, and now, according to sources, it’s all but certain that the regime plans to renege on the entire deal.
Zelaya probably should have known better. In an interview with the Blomberg News service just a day after the agreement was signed, Maria Facusse de Villeda, a top Micheletti aide confided: “Zelaya won’t be restored. But just by signing this agreement we already have the recognition of the international community for the elections.”
So was Zelaya naïve? Perhaps. But it’s also clear that the US State Department, led by Tom Shannon, the interim assistant secretary of state of inter-american affairs, probably misled Zelaya from the start. It was Shannon who insisted in late October that Zelaya sign the agreement with Micheletti, despite the need for Honduran Congress approval. The Congress would be obligated to reinstate him in a timely fashion, Shannon assured Zelaya.
But in an interview conducted last week – an interview conducted in Spanish, and thus less likely to be reported by the US media – Shannon “clarified” that it was up to the Hondurans to decide how to handle the pre-November 29 election transition. So, asked the interviewer, is the US prepared recognize the outcome of the November 29 election whether Zelaya is restored to power or not? “Si, exactamente (Yes, that’s right),” Shannon replied.
Arguably, the Obama administration’s reversal on Zelaya’s restoration is rooted its own long-standing discomfort with the former rancher turned leftist. Even while backing his claim on the presidency, many in the administration have echoed the golpista argument that Zelaya was attempting to impose a Venezuelan-style “populist authoritarian” regime and had largely precipitated his own ouster.
But there’s also a slightly more sinister explanation: Obama simply cut a deal with the right. Sen. James DeMint (R-SC), the arch-conservative who has blocked confirmation of Obama’s Latin America appointees, including Shannon, because of dissatisfaction with Obama’s support for Zelaya suddenly released that hold last week – a move neatly conciding with Shannon’s “clarification.”
And just for good measure, newly appointed Senator James Lemieux (R-FL), who replaced the retiring Sen. Mel Martinez, has issued a confirmation hold of his own – this one focused squarely on Shannon. So, there’s clearly a lesson here for Obama: the right’s appetite for appeasement, in Latin America, and elsewhere, is probably insatiable.
In the final analysis, though, it’s the Honduran people who will decide whether the ouster of Zelaya was justified and whether new presidential elections that move forward without their illegally deposed president will be considered legitimate. Polls indicate that a heavy majority of Hondurans still oppose Zelaya’s ouster and by a 2-1 margin, they reject Micheletti. Zelaya and his supporters are likely to call for a full-fledged boycott of the November balloting but it’s unclear how much of the citizenry will respond when the opportunity to elect a new president presents itself.
Looking beyond the election, Zelaya’s legacy is already coming into view. Whatever his faults, he clearly managed to excite ordinary Hondurans about using elections and the national government to institute economic reforms that favor workers and the poor. It won’t be easy to put this genie back in the bottle. And the military, which has a long history of repressing Honduran popular movements – even aiding the right with death squads in the 1980s – has been given a new lease on life as the final arbiter of Honduran politics. Therefore, whoever wins the presidential election in November, renewed conflict between these two forces – the people and the army – is probably inevitable.
Stewart Lawrence is a recognized specialist in Latino and Latin American affairs, and author of numerous policy reports and publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org