[News] Honduras - The Little Coup That Couldn't

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Nov 3 17:00:18 EST 2009


November 3, 2009

The Reinstatement of Zelaya

The Little Coup That Couldn't


On Oct. 29, Honduras' de facto regime finally agreed to allow 
Congress to vote on whether to "return executive power to its state 
prior to June 28"--a convoluted way of saying "reinstate President 
Manuel Zelaya." Conceding to international and national pressure, the 
Honduran coup appears to be facing its final days.

June 28 was the date when the Armed Forces kidnapped the elected 
president, Manuel Zelaya, and forcibly exiled him to Costa Rica. If 
the agreement brokered this week holds, Honduran society will have 
turned the ugly precedent of a modern-day military coup d'etat into 
an example of the strength of nonviolent grassroots resistance.

The coup regime has held power for over four months. When the entire 
international community condemned the coup, many observers thought it 
would cave. It didn't. When those nations went on to apply sanctions, 
many believed it would crumple. It didn't. When over half the 
Honduran population called for its demise, many were sure it would 
back down. It didn't. Instead, a handful of the nation's wealthiest 
businessmen and politicians backed by the armed forces held democracy 
at gunpoint for 123 days.

During that time the little coup chugged on, emitting puffs of 
bravado when challenged and running over people on its track. Some 
twenty-one members of the resistance movement were murdered by 
security forces or hitmen. National and international human rights 
organizations were overwhelmed by the macabre task of documenting 
cases of human rights violations. The closure of independent media, 
rapes, beatings, arbitrary detentions, torture and persecution made 
many Hondurans feel like they were living in a flashback to the 
military dictatorships of the '80s. In many ways, they were.

A Breakthrough of Sorts

President Zelaya expressed "satisfaction" at the agreement. Zelaya's 
negotiating team had agreed long before on the terms of the revised 
San Jose Accords, and negotiations were hung up on the coup's refusal 
to allow reinstatement of the president.

The terms include reinstatement of Zelaya, creation of a government 
of national reconciliation, suspension of a possible vote on holding 
a Constitutional Assembly until after Jan. 27, when Zelaya's term 
ends, no amnesty for political crimes on either side, establishment 
of a Verification Commission to follow-up the agreement and a Truth 
Commission to investigate events leading up to and after the coup and 
revoking sanctions.

The leader of the de facto regime, Roberto Micheletti, issued a 
statement Thursday night saying, "I am pleased to announce that a few 
minutes ago I authorized my negotiating team to sign an agreement 
that marks the beginning of the end of the political situation in the country."

Micheletti voiced no humility in defeat. He applauded his own 
largesse, saying that "accepting this proposal represents a 
significant concession on the part of this government." He added, 
"But we understand that our people demand that we turn the page of 
history in these difficult moments. For that reason, I have decided 
to support this new proposal to achieve a final accord as soon as possible."

Micheletti reversed months of intransigence on the issue of Zelaya's 
return to power. He ended up signing essentially the same accord he 
has rejected since talks began in San Jose, Costa Rica in early July.

Who knows what magic words were uttered to change the opinion of one 
of the most stubborn dictators in recent history. But whatever they 
were, they probably came out of Tom Shannon's mouth.

For months, both sides have noted that the U.S. government is the 
only entity with the power to break the impasse, due to Honduran 
military and economic dependency on the United States. In a press 
conference held in Tegucigalpa shortly before the agreement, 
Assistant Secretary of State Shannon explicitly confirmed that the 
sticking point was "political will" (the coup's unwillingness to 
accept Zelaya's reinstatement) and that the U.S. government was there 
to induce that political will.

 From our point of view, the deal's on the table. This is not really 
a question of drafting or of shaping a paragraph. It's really a 
question of political will. And that's why it was so important, I 
think, for us to come to Honduras at this moment to make clear to all 
Hondurans that we believe the political will that is displayed and 
expressed by Honduras's leaders should respect the democratic 
vocation of the Honduran people and the democratic aspirations of the 
Honduran people, and the desire of Honduras to return to a larger 
democratic community in the Americas... And that's why we came, to 
underscore our interest in ensuring that the political will is there 
to do a deal.

Shannon mentioned legitimizing the elections and future access to 
development funding from international financial institutions as 
carrots (or sticks) in the negotiations:

...An agreement within the national dialogue opens a large space for 
members of the international community to assist Honduras in this 
election process, to observe the elections, and to have a process 
that is peaceful and which produces leadership that is widely 
recognized throughout the hemisphere as legitimate. This will be 
important as a way of creating a pathway for Honduras to reintegrate 
itself into the Inter-American community, to not - and not just the 
OAS, but also the Inter-American Development Bank and its other 
institutions, and to access development funding through the 
international financial institutions.

It worked--at least in the formal stages, as the world now awaits 
implementation. The State Department was in a celebratory mood 
following the success of the high-level delegation consisting of 
Shannon, deputy Craig Kelly and the White House NSC representative 
for the Western Hemisphere, Dan Restrepo. Secretary of State Hillary 
Clinton held a special press conference from Islamabad announcing the 
breakthrough in negotiations in Honduras:

I want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President 
Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement. I also 
congratulate Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for the important role 
he has played in fashioning the San Jose process and the OAS for its 
role in facilitating the successful round of talks. I cannot think of 
another example of a country in Latin America that having suffered a 
rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame such a 
crisis through negotiation and dialogue.

This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its 
commitment to democracy as embodied in the Inter-American Democratic 
Charter. I'm very proud that I was part of the process, that the 
United States was instrumental in the process. But I'm mostly proud 
of the people of Honduras who have worked very hard to have this 
matter resolved peacefully.

After the dust clears, historians will map the course of the little 
coup that couldn't.

But from this observer's view, negotiation and dialogue played a 
minor role in the apparent resolution of this phase of the crisis. In 
the end, the mobilization of Honduran society sent a clear message 
that "normal" government would not be possible and even more 
widespread insurrection loomed unless a return to democracy reopened 
institutional paths. International pressures and sanctions played a 
far greater role in cornering the coup than the technical terms of an 
accord that is vague, difficult to implement and contentious.

The last-minute decision of the coup to sign also begs the question: 
if this is what it took--a little strong-arming from the State 
Department's A-team--why didn't they do it before twenty-one people 
were killed?

The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

Leaving those questions to the historians, there is reason to 
celebrate but the situation now poses tremendous challenges. If it 
weren't for the extraordinary levels of commitment, participation and 
awareness generated by the democratic crisis over the past months, 
the challenges Honduran society now faces could well be deemed impossible.

The first is to implement the agreement. Although the decision to 
restore Zelaya to power must receive a non-binding opinion from the 
Supreme Court and then be approved in Congress, it appears to be a 
done deal. Zelaya's team reportedly had the support of members from 
the UD Party, 20 members of the Liberal Party and more recently the 
support of the conservative National Party to revoke the decree that 
was issued to justify his removal from office. That decree was 
originally accompanied by a forged letter of resignation that was 
immediately denounced.

The second is to restore constitutional order, consolidating the 
presidency, the new cabinet and state institutions.

This is a mammoth task. Zelaya knows he can't just step back into the 
Presidential Palace and assume that society has returned to its 
pre-coup state. Under the terms of the agreement, he must form a new 
cabinet with the participation of coup supporters. Anger runs high 
and this will be a controversial and delicate undertaking. He must 
review the damage done to national coffers under the coup regime. He 
must reestablish a relationship with the Armed Forces and the other 
branches of government. Many institutions have undergone purges of 
personnel under the coup and must be reestablished and work to regain 

Third, is to organize elections for Nov. 29 or a later agreed-upon date.

If the original date is not changed, that leaves less than a month 
before nationwide elections. Imagine a nation moving from the 
complete breakdown of its democratic system and institutions, to 
campaigns, to elections in less than thirty days. Anti-coup 
candidates had pulled out, other campaigns had been met with 
protests, and now the problem of the logistics of organizing 
elections raises serious issues, let alone legal, social and 
political obstacles.

The timeline is critical to the process. Zelaya told AFP that the 
timeline is under discussion and pointed out a concern that has been 
growing among international organizations and the Honduran public: if 
reinstatement and the return to democratic order do not happen 
immediately, the elections scheduled for Nov. 29 will be in jeopardy. 
His return, he noted, "must be well before the elections to be able 
to validate them."

In fact, despite the breakthrough, the legitimacy of the elections is 
already in jeopardy. If the reinstatement process drags out, as the 
negotiations did, Hondurans worry they could find themselves in the 
middle of an electoral farce. Even if all goes smoothly, nothing will 
be easy or "normal." The United Nations, the Organization of American 
States, and the European Union had all announced they would not send 
elections observers to coup-sponsored elections, as a refusal to 
recognize their legitimacy but also citing the logistical 
difficulties of putting together effective teams on such short 
notice. Now the OAS has stated it is attempting to put together a an 
observation team but the European Union had previously said it 
requires six weeks to put together such an elections mission and 
could no longer consider it.

Honduran law provides for a three-month campaign period prior to the 
vote so it would need to be modified to accommodate a Nov. 29 
election. Even if there were an immediate halt to serious human 
rights violations--many of which are essential to free and fair 
elections, such as freedom of expression, freedom of press and 
freedom of assembly--they leave wounds and gaps. As the agreement was 
being hammered out, coup security forces once again attacked a 
peaceful demonstrators.

Fourth, will be to continue moving toward a vote on holding a 
Constitutional Assembly.

This demand is not going away, despite the agreement between Zelaya 
and Micheletti not to raise the issue until after Jan. 27. This point 
of the accords caused Juan Barahona, a leader of the National Front 
Against the Coup, to resign from the Zelaya negotiating team because 
it has become central to the movement not only to restore, but to 
expand, Honduran democracy.

A Constitutional Assembly is now more necessary than ever. It would 
serve to repair the contradictions in the current constitution that 
coup-mongers exploited to rupture the democratic order, and channel 
the legitimate demands of organizations of peasants, indigenous 
peoples, urban poor, women, youth and other groups pushed to the 
margins of a vastly unequal economic and political system. Since the 
mobilization of popular sectors in resistance to the coup, it is not 
possible to conceive of a free and stable society without proceeding 
with a Constitutional Assembly.

Zelaya was quick to point out that obstacles remain. "This is a first 
step to bringing about my reinstatement that will have to go through 
several stages. I'm moderately optimistic," he told AFP news service 
from the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been holed up since Sept. 21.

The reinstatement of President Zelaya will likely be voted on soon. 
Emails from the Honduran Internet groups that have formed a virtual 
community to debate and decry the military coup in their country, now 
demonstrate a range of feelings, from jubilation to skepticism. 
Elections pose a huge challenge to anti-coup forces since a wide 
range of opinions play out within the diverse National Front Against the Coup.

Hondurans now move into the next phase of a long struggle to rebuild 
and broaden democracy. The challenge includes holding free and fair 
elections in the short term, but also includes critical issues of 
expanding democratic rights and participation beyond the elections 
and the system of representation. They must find ways to heal deep 
wounds and confront an economic and political crisis that is far from over.

If the coup finally falls and Zelaya is restored to power, Honduran 
society and the international community will score an historic 
victory. It must be remembered though, that the victory is a 
defensive one--it marks the successful rollback of anti-democratic 
forces in a small but determined nation.

Those forces will not desist--in Honduras or in other places where 
democracy is vulnerable and nefarious interests are strong. Until 
democracy in the fullest sense--participatory and dedicated to 
nonviolence--gains ground, the world could be stuck in long battles 
to defend against attacks instead of moving forward toward societies 
where this kind of offensive against the rule of law can no longer occur.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico 
City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).

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