San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Honduras in Flux After Coup

Honduras began 2009 on what appeared to be relatively solid footing following several years of sustained economic growth and an increasingly robust tourism sector – the country’s main source of employment.

But behind the façade of economic development, a political crisis was brewing that would reach a boiling point June 28, when President Manuel Zelaya was rousted from bed by soldiers and whisked out of the country to Costa Rica, where he was dumped unceremoniously in his pajamas at Juan Santamaría Airport.

Within a week, Honduras had a new “interim government” led by Roberto Micheletti and backed by military muscle. Zelaya, meanwhile, became a political nomad wandering Latin America trying to drum up support for his restitution.

The events that followed in Honduras over the past six months have been given more spin than a Sandy Koufax curveball. The self-styled socialist countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), of which Honduras was a member under Zelaya, were quick to condemn the move in Honduras as a military coup – a label that most of the world agreed to with varying levels of enthusiasm.

The United States and the EU cut foreign aid and virtually every government in the world refused to recognize the Micheletti government.

In Honduras, however, all the other branches of government and state institutions, including many people from  Zelaya’s own political party, applauded the president’s removal, claiming that he was the real coupster for trying to change the constitution, which is illegal in Honduras and punishable by removal from office.

Zelaya’s expulsion, they argued, was a matter of proper checks and balances provided by the constitution to prevent the formation of a real dictatorship.

That position, however, failed to convince many people outside of Honduras, which became increasingly isolated from the world community as the Micheletti government dug in its heels.

Meanwhile, Micheletti continued to employ the military and police to repress dissidents in the streets of Honduras, serving to solidify his image abroad as a traditional coup leader.

Mediation efforts led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and the Organization of American States (OAS) floundered, and the blame game intensified as deadline after deadline came and went without any progress.

After several months of failed efforts at shuttle diplomacy and two aborted attempts to return to Honduras, Zelaya eventually took matters into his own hands and sneaked back into his country in September aboard a small plane from El Salvador.

Arriving in Tegucigalpa with nowhere to go and an outstanding warrant for his arrest, Zelaya sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy, where he remained at press time despite attempts to leave for Mexico in early December – a move blocked by Micheletti.

At year’s end, it appeared that the Nov. 29 presidential elections won by Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who will take office Jan. 27, had done little to resolve Honduras’ crisis, and had potentially worsened it in the long run.

While the United States, Costa Rica,  Panama and Guatemala recognized Lobo’svictory, neighboring Nicaragua, the countries  ALBA and most of South America say they will not recognize the new Honduran government.

The Honduran crisis and the international community’s response to it – particularly the United States’ recognition of a questionable electoral process slapped on at the end of the coup in an attempt to give it the appearance of legitimacy (like a sugary frosting on a mud pie) – has set a very dangerous precedent in an already shaky region of the world.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega – who has both accused the opposition of plotting a coup against him, and been accused by the same opposition of staging his own “institutional coup” against Nicaragua’s constitution – warned his political opponents, “What happened to President Manuel Zelaya

could happen to [you] next.”

Ortega added, “And with what authority are they going to complain? With what Democratic Charter? The Democratic Charter [of the OAS] has fallen to pieces… there is no Democratic Charter that means anything in Latin America; decisions are now made by the people.”

In Nicaragua, Ortega has identified his government as the legitimate representative of “the people,” despite winning the 2006 elections with only 38 percent of the vote, and currently polling even lower than that (An M&R Consultants poll in December showed less than 26 percent of Nicaraguans approve of Ortega’s government).

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez joined in the saber rattling Dec. 13, following a year-end ALBA summit in Cuba.

In comments to Venezuelan press, Chávez said that the coup in Honduras was “a coup against ALBA” and warned that similar mischief is already afoot in Nicaragua.

“They are trying to overthrow Daniel Ortega,” Chávez said, alluding to an alleged conspiracy by the United States to “detain ALBA” and “reclaim their backyard” in Central America.

Chávez said that ALBA will defend Ortega against such alleged threats. Given the Sandinista Front’s proven intolerance toward political dissidence this year, ALBA’s bellicose posturing could provide encouragement for further crackdowns next year. At the very least, it sets a rather ominous tone heading into 2010.

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