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Opinion Editorial
August 11, 2009

The Crisis in Honduras

by
Henry Jackson Society

Executive Summary:
– Honduras has been in crisis since the removal of president Manuel Zelaya from power on 28th June. Zelaya was removed by the military on the orders of the Supreme Court.
– The removal of Zelaya has provoked universal condemnation and measures against the interim government of Honduras, which has received no international recognition. Within Honduras, reactions have been deeply polarised.
– The return of coups to Central America is a backward step for the region. The United States has been right to resist the temptation to endorse the removal of an elected left-wing president, which would have provided a propaganda coup to anti-US leaders and undermined the USA’s standing in Latin America. However, relations between the US administration and Zelaya have deteriorated.
– The interim government of Honduras has been unwilling to accept any compromises which would involve the return of Zelaya. The recent announcement that an Organisation of American States delegation would be allowed to come to the country is the first sign of progress. If a solution is not found, both Honduras and the wider region will suffer.

The crisis in Honduras

The interim government of Honduras, which has been in power since ousting president Manuel Zelaya on 28th June, has agreed to allow a delegation from the Organisation of American States to visit the country. This followed a previous refusal to allow the visit of a delegation led by Jose Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the OAS, because of what it called his “lack of objectivity, impartiality and professionalism.”[i] The interim government has been angered by his unqualified support for the return of Zelaya since the beginning of the crisis, but is now willing to accept Insulza as part of a delegation as long as he is only an “observer”.[ii] The OAS delegation will include the foreign ministers of Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, México and the Dominican Republic.

Zelaya himself, meanwhile, is still based in Nicaragua, having tried and failed to fly back into Honduras and having staged repeated demonstrations on the Honduran border, demanding to be allowed in. Demonstrations within the country both in support of Zelaya and in support of interim President Roberto Micheletti continue to take place on a daily basis. The interim government’s acceptance of an OAS delegation is the first serious indication that a diplomatic solution to the Honduran crisis may be possible, although Michelletti contuniues to insist that he will not allow Zelaya to return.

The background to the crisis

President Manuel Zelaya had been planning to hold a public consultation on 28th June as to whether there should be a referendum held at the same time as the presidential elections due in November, to establish an assembly charged with amending the constitution. The likely reason for this desire to review the Honduran constitution was to remove the one-term limit on serving as president, opening the way for Zelaya to seek re-election. On 26th June, the Supreme Court ruled that the consultation would be illegal, and secretly ordered that Zelaya should be removed from office. The head of the armed forces had refused to give logistical support to the 28th June consultation, for which he was sacked by Zelaya, but this was overruled by the Supreme Court.[iii]

The planned consultation was pre-empted by Zelaya’s arrest by the army at dawn on 28th June. Approximately one hundred soldiers stormed the president’s residence in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, put Zelaya on the presidential jet, and dispatched him to San José, Costa Rica. Later that day, Roberto Micheletti, the Speaker of Parliament, was sworn in as President by the National Congress. Several dozen other officials including the Foreign Minister and the Mayor of San Pedro Sula were detained. On 1st July, a “state of exception” suspending civil liberties was declared on 1 July by Micheletti’s government.[iv]

The international reaction to the Honduras coup

The international response to events in Honduras was swift and virtually unanimous. All other Latin American nations condemned the removal of Zelaya. The new de facto government of Honduras has not been recognised by any other country or international body.
Zelaya’s ally Hugo Chávez of Venezuela pledged to “bring down” any replacement government, and suspended oil shipments. The nine members of the leftist ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) bloc issued a joint statement stating that they would not recognise any new government in Honduras. The United States also condemned Zelaya’s removal, with Barack Obama saying: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras.” The OAS called an emergency summit and approved a resolution demanding “the immediate, safe and unconditional return of the constitutional president, Manuel Zelaya.” After the new government refused to step down and return Zelaya, the OAS unanimously suspended Honduras from the organisation, leaving it as the only country in the Americas not welcome in the organisation now that the ban on Cuba’s membership has been lifted.

The United Nations passed a resolution condemning the removal of Zelaya as a coup, demanding his “immediate and unconditional restoration” and calling “firmly and categorically on all states to recognize no government other than that” of Zelaya. The European Union removed all ambassadors from Honduras, as did Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Honduras also became subject to economic measures, with its neighbours El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua stopping overland trade for 48 hours, and with the World Bank suspending financial aid.[v]

The reaction within Honduras

If the international response was unified in its condemnation of the removal of Zelaya, responses within Honduras were much more mixed. An CID- Gallup opinion poll suggested that 41% of people agreed that Zelaya’s actions justified his removal as president, while only 28% disagreed. Yet a different question in the same poll also indicated that 46% of people opposed the coup, while 41% supported it.[vi] Honduran society is deeply polarised, with opposing groups of protesters, under contrasting white (anti-Zelaya) and red (pro-Zelaya) banners coming onto the streets. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the leader of the Catholic Church in Honduras called on Zelaya not to return to the country in order to avert a “bloodbath.”[vii]

On 5th July, Zelaya did attempt to fly back into Honduras, but his plane was prevented from landing. At least one Zelaya supporter was killed when the army opened fire on demonstrators.[viii] Since then, he has staged regular demonstrations on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.[ix] The Michelletti government, meanwhile, has continued to refuse to accept any solution which would involve Zelaya’s return.[x]

The position of the United States

With his hopes for a swift return frustrated, Zelaya has become more outspoken in his comments, and has vented his anger at the United States. After a meeting with Mexican president Felipe Calderón, he told a crowd in México City: “If President Barack Obama really wants to turn back this coup, these coup leaders will last all of five minutes because the economy of Honduras, all our military, commercial and migration activities, depend on the United States. We will see the extent of his sincerity.”[xi] Zelaya went further, arguing: “There is a financial industry group in the coup that is supported by hawks in Washington.” He complained that US right-wingers “speak of democracy in Washington but outside they promote dictatorship or nearly terrorist acts, because a military coup is a terrorist activity.” [xii]

US support for the restoration of Zelaya has also started to cool. A State Department letter to a US Senator stated: “We also recognize that President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal.”Significantly, the letter does not call for the return of Zelaya: “Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual.”[xiii] Several Republican senators have objected to the Obama administration’s hitherto pro-Zelaya stance, arguing that his removal from office was legal and pointing out that he is an ally of figures such as Chávez. They argue that Zelaya, in seeking to amend the constitution, was aiming to follow the same path as Chávez and remain in power for as long as possible, while transforming Honduras into a socialist society. Pro-Zelaya slogans such as Nuestro Norte es en el Sur (‘Our north is in the south’), suggesting that Hondurans should look south to Venezuela rather than north to the USA, have led some to see the conflict in Honduras as part of a wider struggle between the United States and anti-US leaders led by Chávez.[xiv] This analysis was encouraged by Honduran General Miguel Angel García, who claimed: “Central America was not the objective of this communism disguised as democracy … This socialism, communism, chavismo, we would call it, was headed to the heart of the United States.”[xv]

Yet condemning the removal of a president who was, after all, democratically elected was surely the right step for the United States. Supporting or even condoning the removal of an elected left-wing leader would only have confirmed all the worst stereotypes about US policy in Latin America, and provided fresh ammunition for the propaganda of Chávez and other anti-US radicals. Any attempts by the US to present itself as following a ‘new approach’ to Latin America would have been immediately undermined. Instead, Chávez has been denied the opportunity of blaming the coup on the US. He has also been left looking weak, having failed to do anything to bring his ally back to power despite his fierce rhetoric. The rest of Latin America has looked to the United States, not to Venezuela or ALBA, to solve this crisis. Although Chávez supplied Zelaya with the plane he used to try to fly back to Honduras, Zelaya himself travelled to Washington DC, not Caracas, to seek support. Even Chávez himself eventually appealed to Obama to “do something.” [xvi]

Conclusion

That is not to say that US policy has been successful yet. The United States enlisted Costa Rica’s president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias to attempt to broker a solution. He drew up the San José Accords, a plan which would involve the return of Zelaya but an end to any proposed changes to the Honduran constitution.[xvii] Although Zelaya has accepted these terms, the Michelletti government and the Honduran military have given mixed responses, with the military indicating that it would be willing to agree to such terms, while Michelletti has continued to state that Zelaya will not be allowed back. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has declared that it wishes to put Zelaya on trial for breaching the constitution if he does return to the country.[xviii] Hopes for a swift resolution of the crisis are therefore small.

The first successful coup d’etat in Latin America since the Cold War is in itself a negative development for the region, which for many evokes memories of the time when coups were commonplace. Honduras itself had two military coups in the 1960s and 1970s, and has only had a civilian government since the 1980s. On top of recent mass unrest in neighbouring Nicaragua and Guatemala, the Honduran coup led Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institution to conclude that “Central America seems to be unraveling politically. In different ways, it is showing the vulnerabilities of democracy in the region.” Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC commented: “There is a cumulative impact and the perception that Latin America is out of control.” This is a crisis which is likely to remain an ongoing and frustrating problem for the region’s leaders, and a formerly democratic state now run with military curfews and without elections on the USA’s doorstep does not bode well for the cause of democracy promotion in the Americas. Micheletti’s decision to accept an OAS delegation could herald the beginnings of some sort of agreement, as long as the delegates are not blocked again. If a solution is not found, the consequences for investment, stability and democracy in Honduras and Central America will likely be highly damaging.

Peter John Cannon is the Latin America Section Director of the Henry Jackson Society.