Jun 27, 2009
Honduran Crisis Tests Commitment to Democracy
What could have been a military coup in Honduras seems to have been defused by the intervention of the international community. The opposition to President Mel Zelaya seems to have backed down for the time being and a more conciliatory president has announced that the situation is under control.
The acid test comes tomorrow, when the nation votes in a national poll called by the president and opposed by the legislature and the courts.
The events that led to the Honduran political crisis began with a simple question: Do you agree to install a fourth urn in the November 2009 general elections to decide on calling a National Consitutent Assembly that would approve a political constitution?
This question will be placed before the public in a non-binding poll that has caused an uproar within parts of the government and powerful sectors of society that have tried to block it.
Both the Honduran Congress and the courts ruled against holding the poll in recent days. The rulings sparked a crisis when the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vasquez, refused to allow the army to distribute the urns and other materials for the June 28 poll.
As Commander in Chief, Zelaya fired Vasquez on June 24 for disobeying an order. The following day, organized citizen groups led by Zelaya went to the army base where the materials had been delivered to recover and distribute them.
The army then occupied strategic points in the streets of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, reportedly including the presidential residence. Playing chicken with the executive branch, the Supreme Court ordered that Vasquez be reinstated.
That’s when the situation began to smell like a military coup d’ etat. The presidency charged that the army mobilization was supported by “the media and economic oligarchy” and warnings of a coup circulated around the world.
Today, the country moved back from the brink of open conflict. Zelaya said in an interview that Vasquez will remain in his post, stating, “It’s true, I announced his removal, but I have not named anyone. He remains in charge of the Armed Forces and has expressed his obedience and discipline.” He also announced that he will ask the army to withdraw to its quarters.
At the time of this writing, the army remains in the streets and it is unclear if it will try to obstruct the process. Vasquez was reported as saying that the armed forces were standing by “to guarantee order in the country and respect for the Constitution”, according to EFE press.
International Support and the OAS Role
The Organization of American States (OAS), Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA), the United Nations, Mercosur and the European Union have all expressed support for dialogue and respect for democratic institutions in Honduras. In a highly charged geopolitical context, the content and effects of the endorsements differed in important ways.
The nine-nation ALBA bloc, to which Honduras belongs, stated unequivocal support for President Zelaya:
“We manifest our firmest support for the government of [Zelaya], in its just and decided actions to defend the right of the Honduran people to express their sovereign will and advance a process of social transformation in the framework of democratic institutions."
It went on to warn of consequences in the event of a coup:
"We will mobilize ourselves... in the event of any attempt by the oligarchy to break the democratic and constitutional order of this sister Central American republic."
This had the contradictory impact of signalling that the Honduran government could not be isolated in the conflict and of inflaming the anti-Zelaya factions in the country, especially the press, which has consistently criticized the president for his ties with Chavez.
The United Nations statement confined itself to stating “it is important for the country's leaders to act with full respect for the rule of law and democratic institutions, and to seek consensus on the pressing political issues through a peaceful and inclusive dialogue” and clarified that the institution was not sending observers to the June 28 vote.
The OAS actions went farthest in defusing the conflict. Honduras took its case before the Permanent Council on June 26. Honduran representative, Carlos Sosa, made a plea for support in upholding the country’s democratic institutions. Sosa noted that his government "had reason to believe that democratic institutions and legitimate exercise of power are at risk, are being threatened.”
Following deliberations over a draft resolution, the OAS pronounced its support for the rule of law and agreed to send a mission to Honduras to investigate the situation.
OAS involvement deflects the possibility that the military will force a scenario in which Zelaya is replaced, since this would clearly be interpreted as a break with democratic institutions. It also opens up space for a mediated dialogue among the warring factions, using the shared diplomatic arena to avoid unilateral outside intervention either in favor of or against the administration.
The OAS commitment, welcomed by the Honduran government, also lessens regional fears that the U.S. government will intervene against the Zelaya government. In The long history of intervention in the region and the Bush doctrine have left great skepticism about the U.S. role that has not disappeared with the election of Obama. Honduras served as the staging grounds for the illegal U.S.-supported war against the Nicaraguan government and hosts a U.S. military base.
The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras(COPINH) charged in a communique on June 24 that the U.S. ambassador “alerted beforehand of the events denounced here, left the country and called on the directors of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other institutions close to the U.S. government to abandon the country, thus demonstrating his complicity with the forces attempting the coup.”
The Americas Program has contacted the State Department to confirm or deny the alleged departure of the ambassador but has received no response.
The United States undeniably has the military capacity to intervene and impose a solution. Moreover, Honduras has grown deeply dependent on the U.S. economy. Remittances from the U.S. were $2.56 billion in 2007--more than one-fifth of GDP--and the U.S. is by far the country’s major trade partner. In recent years the U.S. government has threatened to cut off visas, withdraw trade privileges or block remittances when it felt its interests negatively affected.
If the crisis came to a head, would the U.S. intervene militarily or through economical sanctions to pressure the left-leaning president?
Especially given its support of the OAS role, the answer is “very unlikely”. The Obama adminstration has repeatedly voiced its commitment to multilateral diplomacy. State Department spokesperson Phillip Crowley affirmed the position to work within the OAS, while avoiding specific mention of supporting the Honduran president:
“We urge all sides to seek a consensual democratic resolution in the current political impasse that adheres to the Honduran constitution and to Honduran laws consistent with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And we think that the OAS has an important role to play here, and we urge the OAS to take all appropriate actions necessary to uphold the provisions in the charter.”
Although the U.S. representative to the OAS, Hector Morales, hinted at criticism of Zelaya, stating that “no branch of government can be above the law” and emphasizing the separation of powers, the U.S. joined other countries in supporting the OAS decision by acclamation.
Zelaya thanked the international community for support for the democratic institutions, calling it “healthy” and crediting their actions for staving off an attempt to break from institutional rule.
It is ironic that Honduras is once again on center stage at the OAS. Just weeks ago, the nation hosted the General Assembly where after protracted negotiations the organization agreed to repeal the suspension of Cuba. At that time, the ability to reach a difficult consensus revived hope that the OAS could play a strong and less biased role in the hemisphere than it has in the past.
Today’s decision reinforces that hope.
Just the Beginning
If Honduras gets through tomorrow’s poll without violence or political rupture, no matter what the results are it will be only the beginning of a long and tempestuous political process. This week’s crisis concentrated on the presidency, the balance of powers and the public’s right to voice its opinion on a national issue.
But if, as many expect, the results of the poll show strong support for a Constitutional Assembly, then the real hard part starts.
What the mainstream press has avoided reporting is that Zelaya has widespread popular support and the proposal to create a new constitution in the country has even wider support.
Depending on the source, the per capita gross national income in Honduras runs between $1,635 and around $4,000 dollars. Forty-four percent of the population lives on under 2$ a day, according to the United Nations.
State Department figures show 38 percent of the population unemployed or underemployed, not counting the over one million who have migrated to the United States in search of a livelihood they could not find at home.
Honduras is not only a poor country; it is 16th in the world in inequality. The top 10 pecent of households receives 42 percent of the wealth while the lowest 10 percent receives only 1.2 percent.
The skewed power and wealth lies at the basis of the current conflict. The labor, farm, indigenous and poor organizations supporting tomorrow’s poll want to see a new constitution that redistributes resources in such a way as to balance wealth and halt forced migration to the United States.
The Citizen Movement to Restore Honduras notes the commitment these grassroots movements have to their cause: “The poll is very popular, and has sparked the widespread mobilization of party activists and progressive sectors, in which we include ourselves, and the people in general who see an opportunity to make structurally change some of the many inequities in Honduras, and throw out, by means of new Constitution, institutions built on the corruption and privilege of the national and internationally powerful.”
Forces opposing the poll have rarely touched on this issue. In an effort to portray the conflict as a problem of a lone, crazed megalomaniac, the media rarely interview popular organizations and interpret the constitutional assembly as merely a mechanism to prolong the Zelaya presidency. While a change in term limits may or may not eventually be proposed, this leaves out issues that lie at the crux of the current conflict and seriously distorts the information coming out of the beleaguered country.