Jul 4, 2009

High Noon in Honduras

Both sides are preparing for high noon in Honduras this weekend, as President Manuel Zelaya plans to return to his country and coup leaders vow to arrest him immediately if he does.

Zelaya was abducted by hooded members of the armed forces on June 28 and flown to Costa Rica. The coup established itself in power, anointed by a National Congress at odds with the president.

Since then, the drama moved from this small, impoverished country to the international stage. Zelaya traveled to Managua to attend a meeting of the Central American Integration System, where he picked up formal statements of support from Central American nations, the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), the Group of Rio, and the whole alphabet soup of integration groups in the region.

From there, the newly famous president flew to New York for an appearance before the General Assembly of the United Nations, which also called for his immediate reinstatement. Zelaya met again with the Organization of American States (OAS) on July 1, which issued an ultimatum to the coup leaders to restore him to power in 72 hours or face suspension from the 34-nation bloc.

Zelaya had planned a return to his country for July 2, but postponed his return to allow the period to pass as international diplomacy went into overdrive. "The OAS has called for 72 hours and we agree with this decision," Zelaya stated. That places his return date for this weekend. Zelaya has refused to give details on the exact date or how he will return, saying he does not want to tip off armed forces leading the coup.

Meanwhile, self-styled "president" Roberto Micheletti has stated to the press that Zelaya "will never return" and refused to negotiate reinstatement. The coup issued arrest orders against Zelaya on 18 charges that include betrayal of the country and failure to fulfill his duties.

The Honduran crisis came to a head over a nationwide non-binding referendum called by President Zelaya to determine if citizens should vote in November elections on calling a Constitutional Assembly to remake the country's magna carta. The courts and the Congress ruled the poll illegal and when the president proceeded to carry out the vote, the armed forces moved in to take control.

All Sides Dig In

Supporters of the coup, opposition forces and the international community have all been busily working to consolidate their ranks over the past few days. On July 2, social organizations of workers, farmers, and citizens held a massive march through Tegucigalpa, where they delivered a message of gratitude for support for democracy at the offices of the United Nations.

Henry Alegria, interviewed by phone amid shouting demonstrators, affirmed that despite arrest orders, movement leaders are still safe and the ranks of the opposition are growing. Although the army has blocked pro-Zelaya groups from traveling to the capital in some places, so far there has been little bloodshed. Alegria noted, "They are using other kinds of tactics, like the curfew and accusing anti-coup leaders of crimes."

The coup declared a "state of exception," the equivalent to a state of siege, on July 1, suspending basic civil liberties including freedom of assembly, freedom of transit, due process, and justifying search and seizure without a warrant. The press has been placed under tight controls, with some media—including international media—shut down completely at times.

Honduran human rights leader, Bertha Oliva, stated, "With the suspension of these articles, they officially make us all vulnerable and justify their actions against basic human rights." Oliva called for urgent support from the international community.

Coup supporters have also rallied forces to protest the return of Zelaya and press for recognition of the coup government. They have held parallel rallies in Tegucigalpa, claiming that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is the force behind Zelaya, and asserting that the international community's position is due to ignorance of the situation.

Video images of the dueling demonstrations show the sharp split in the country. Honduras is the 16th most unequal nation in the world, with the top 10% of the population receiving 42% of income and the bottom 10% controlling only 1.2%. This situation feeds a steady stream of migrants to the United States, and many families now live off money sent home from relatives working there.

Zelaya draws his support among the poor primarily. Elected as a center-right politician from a wealthy ranching family, Zelaya moved to the left over the course of his four-year term. He especially galled business leaders by raising the minimum wage last December from $157 to $289 dollars a month, except in free trade zones. The UN notes that 44% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Unions and campesino organizations belonging to Via Campesina stand strongly behind the president.

On the other side are business leaders, media owners, and politicians. These forces claim that the return of Zelaya with the help of the international community would constitute an unacceptable "foreign invasion," and that the president was aiming to extend the term limit through the poll planned for the 28th.

The armed forces have played a powerful but discreet role since overthrowing the government. As in any military coup, their actions will largely define how events play out. So far, the top officers have formed a tight command with the civilian coup leaders. When Michelletti appeared before a pro-coup crowd, uniformed military officers stood firmly but silently in the background.

Via Campesina leader in Honduras, Rafael Alegria, said in an interview with the Americas Program that the army has blocked protesters from traveling to Tegucigalpa and other points. He added that the military could be preparing for war. "They are recruiting young people, ages 12-30, for military service. We don't know what the purpose is, but they are inciting people saying there could be a war. They are also calling out reservists and persons retired from the armed forces."

Intense Diplomatic Activity

The military coup in Honduras has all the sinister markings of the Cold War overthrows by dictators that characterized Latin America in the past. The president was kidnapped in the wee hours of the morning, wearing only his pajamas, and army forces occupied the streets of the small, impoverished nation.

But the world has changed since those times. The international community united across ideological lines in its condemnation, with the United States government joining the call for reinstatement of the left-leaning president.

President Obama called it a "terrible precedent" and the State Department has worked within the OAS to pressure the coup to back down and restore the rule of law.

The postponement of Zelaya's return offers yet another possible diplomatic solution to what could turn into a violent confrontation. The OAS text condemned the coup, recognized Zelaya as the president, and called for the Secretary General to seek diplomatic solutions. Its resolution states, "Should these prove unsuccessful within 72 hours, the Special General Assembly shall forthwith invoke Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Honduras' membership."

The UN resolution deplores the interruption of "the democratic and constitutional order and the legitimate exercise of power in Honduras." The text demands "the immediate and unconditional restoration of the legitimate and Constitutional Government of the President of the Republic, Mr. José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, and of the legally established authority in Honduras."

International response has also included diplomatic and economic sanctions. The European Union and virtually all Latin American countries are withdrawing their ambassadors immediately.

Central American countries closed their borders to land trade with Honduras for 48 hours and the Central American Bank has suspended loans. Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, announced that the Bank will "pause" lending to Honduras under the coup. The Bank had a reported $270 million in the pipeline to Honduras and is a major source of lending for the country.

U.S. Response

The Obama administration has firmly supported OAS efforts to condemn the coup and reinstate Zelaya. The coup is the first real diplomatic crisis to confront the new administration, and although Honduras is a small (7.3 million pop.) and economically weak country that plays a very minor role in U.S. geopolitical strategy, the issues at stake make it a test case for a new foreign policy.

The response from Obama, and a generally on-message State Department, has already shown some major shifts from the foreign policy of his predecessor.

First, the administration broke with the ideologically defined criteria of democracy established by the Bush government. Zelaya's ties with Venezuela—its membership in the nine-nation ALBA—made it suspect to the Bush administration and many members still part of the U.S. diplomatic corps. By condemning the coup against Zelaya, the administration placed democratic principles above the ideological split created by the Bush administration between Latin American nations bound to alliances.

Second, the United States government has committed to working within multilateral organizations, especially the OAS, to resolve the crisis. Since before the abduction of the president, when rumors of a coup circulated and Honduran armed forces were deployed, the United States joined with other countries of the hemisphere to prevent the coup and later condemn it. Since then, it has allowed the OAS under Sec. General Jose Insulza to take the lead.

As the OAS deadline approaches, the U.S. government could do more. Among the following measures some are subject to delicate considerations of timing, since Honduras faces a very volatile situation in the next few days and avoiding massive violence and even war must be a top priority in arranging Zelaya's return.

The United States government should withdraw its ambassador from Tegucigalpa immediately. In Honduras today, there is no valid counterpart with which to engage in diplomatic dialogue. Latin American and European nations have already withdrawn their ambassadors. The continued presence of the U.S. ambassador could create a doubt about whether the United States is truly committed to isolating the Honduran coup diplomatically. With all eyes on the United States, that doubt could be interpreted as a crack in the door at a time when it is important to leave the coup no room to believe it can consolidate its illegitimate power.

The message must be crystal clear: There is no possibility of diplomatic engagement with a military coup.

The United States must support immediate suspension of Honduras from the OAS at the end of the 72-hour period if the coup is still in power. There have been some reports that a debate exists in the OAS over whether the suspension is automatic at the end of the deadline or requires a new meeting. The U.S. representatives in the OAS should support immediate suspension of Honduras if this period runs out with the coup still in power. Any waffling on a key diplomatic ultimatum would be a sign of weakness that could be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the rule of law in Honduras. It would also indicate a fracture in the OAS, which to date has acted swiftly and in a remarkably unified manner.

The United States must apply economic sanctions. Under Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Bill, all U.S. assistance must be cut off in the case of a military coup. While Sec. of State Clinton has called the Honduran coup a coup, the State Department says it is reviewing the legal definition before sending word to Congress to cut aid. At stake is up to $42 million in aid planned for the Central American country.

This is one that seems to be a question of timing. Some argue that the sanctions should be announced before the deadline runs out to pressure the coup to allow the safe return of President Zelaya to office. Others argue that by holding the sanctions card until later, the international community has more to bargain with in the case on non-compliance with the deadline.

In any case, the law is clear that sanctions must be applied.

The United States should do all in its power to assure the safe and peaceful return of the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. Presumably, this is being done. There is no room for negotiation that does not include restoring Zelaya to power unconditionally. The logistics of safely getting him home will be complicated and require the creativity and commitment of all nations, especially the United States.

The United States must speak up for the protection of human rights and civil liberties. The State Department has been relatively silent on the state of siege, army repression of demonstrators, and threats against grassroots movement leaders in the country. It must speak out more strongly to protect these people and warn the coup against the further criminalization and repression of the opposition.

For More Information:

Honduran Rural Leader Rafael Alegria: "Some Battalions Are Refusing to Repress the Population"

Text of UN Resolution and Call for International Support from Popular Resistance Front of Honduras

Zelaya Postpones Return, Mass Mobilization in the Country


  1. Mel Zelaya tells his people to avoid violence, while he is on the air in front of the cameras, while the world listens and pats his back. But how do you know what he does behind your backs? He is telling his followers to create chaos in our country. They have caused millions in losses in public property, they have destroyed and vandalized hundred of businesses in the major cities and now forced the armed forces to defend themselves. the blood of the Dead is in his hands, he provoked it, he asked his followers to attack no matter what.

  2. I know that the coup has been trying to sell this argument that the armed forces were attacked, thus justifying opening fire on unarmed protesters. They will have a hard time, as you will, convincing anyone of that claim, given the actual video footage of the incident. It is also always telling when all the dead and wounded are on one side. I certainly am not convinced and was relieved to see that the U.S. government also was not, as evidenced in today's statement depoloring the violence from teh State Dept.