Honduras endgame?

Almost two weeks after Manuel Zelaya’s surprise return to Tegucigalpa, it is clear that any hopes that he might have harboured of provoking a rapid dénouement to the Honduran drama that has been playing out since he was deposed on June 28, have had to be put on hold. The de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, has responded with defiance, remarkable only to those who have failed to recognize how consistent he has been in his intransigence thus far in the face of international pressure. This hard-line attitude, coupled with Mr Zelaya’s own antics, is naturally posing problems for all who would like to see the Honduras crisis resolved, regardless of their sympathies.

In response to the mobilisation last week of pro-Zelaya activists around the presence of the deposed president in the Brazilian embassy and Mr Zelaya’s own provocative statements, Mr Micheletti on Sunday issued a decree suspending five constitutional guarantees for 45 days, including the closing of a radio station and a television channel, banning demonstrations and permitting the police to detain suspects without warrants. He also gave the Brazilian embassy a 10-day ultimatum to release Mr Zelaya and Honduran authorities refused to allow the return of the Spanish ambassador and the entry of an OAS delegation, which they deemed to have arrived too far in advance of the October 7 visit of OAS foreign ministers agreed to by the coup government.

Mr Micheletti’s actions were widely criticized as draconian and repressive. Worse, they appeared to remove the possibility of dialogue for a negotiated settlement. But there has been a backlash. According to Christopher Sabatini, writing in Americas Quarterly, on September 29, Mr Micheletti may have “overplayed his hand” and cracks are now appearing in the political support for the regime.

Following a meeting with the president of the Honduran Congress and a group of congressmen, Mr Micheletti announced that he would consult with the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the main presidential candidates (Elvin Santos of Mr Zelaya’s Liberal Party and Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the National Party) in the November 29 elections, and that the decree would be repealed at the “appropriate time,” possibly by the end of this week.

The critical political factor against the virtual state of siege imposed by Mr Micheletti would appear to be that, by restricting freedom of expression and freedom of association, he is undermining his own arguments about the constitutional validity of the removal of Mr Zelaya and of the forthcoming elections, for which he has been holding out in his efforts to prevent Mr Zelaya’s reinstatement. This, in addition to the suspension of UN technical electoral assistance to Honduras, has led to speculation that the candidates may be able to force Mr Micheletti to accede to a negotiated solution. Unsurprisingly, neither candidate wishes to be elected under controversial circumstances and in the face of international opprobrium.

The army is also wavering, amidst strong suspicions that Mr Zelaya was smuggled into the country with the support of elements in the military, and on Tuesday, the army commander lent his voice to the call for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

The business community, which has hitherto been firmly behind Mr Micheletti, seems to be increasingly perturbed about the US government’s suspension of several businessmen’s visas and the declining economic fortunes of the country. Continued isolation will undoubtedly do untold damage to the economy and hurt the elites where it hurts most – their bank accounts.

Brazil has, quite naturally, reacted strongly to Mr Micheletti’s threats to the integrity of its embassy and diplomatic personnel. President Lula da Silva has stated that he will not accept an ultimatum from “a coup government” and has firmly reiterated the call for Mr Zelaya’s reinstatement.
Even as Brazil has seemed intent on using the Honduras crisis as an opportunity to assert its leadership in the region, especially with the new US administration still feeling its way towards re-engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean, Brazil has been quite vocal in the United Nations and the Organization of American States about the need for a multilateral solution to the crisis.

Indeed, from the outset, all eyes have been on the OAS as the body to effect the restoration of democracy in Honduras. The situation is however extremely complex, as borne out by the failure of the OAS Permanent Council to arrive at a consensus at a meeting in Washington on Monday, with the Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, Peru and the USA refusing to rule out the possibility of accepting the results of the elections.

What was more astonishing was the attack of the US Alternate Representative to the OAS, Lewis Amselem, who, in calling on Mr Zelaya to stop making inflammatory allegations, also criticized his return in most undiplomatic language, calling it “irresponsible and foolish.” Mr Amselem, however, has something of a chequered past and is seen as an unreconstructed right winger. The US State Department is not expected to maintain this tone.

It has since been announced that an OAS advance team will travel to Honduras today to pave the way for the mission next week by OAS foreign ministers and the secretary general, to resume negotiations on President Oscar Arias’s San José Agreement. The endgame may be near.

Mr Zelaya thus appears to have succeeded in provoking Mr Micheletti to show his anti-democratic colours and the true nature of the illegitimate regime in Honduras. As Mr Sabatini puts it, Mr Micheletti’s “reign as de facto president may be coming to an end” and “all that’s left now is a graceful, negotiated exit.” That is the logical expectation, providing there are no other twists in the tale.

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