A Diplomatic Theater of the Absurd: Canada, the OAS, and the Honduran Coup

May 4, 2010

“Canada congratulates the Honduran people.” With these words, Canada’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Peter Kent, effectively endorsed the outcome of the November 29 Honduran presidential election.1 The following month, in a statement on the inauguration of Porfirio Lobo, a conservative from the National Party, Kent reiterated his congratulations. “I am confident,” he said of Lobo, “that he will provide the strong political leadership needed to help Honduras move beyond its lengthy political impasse.” Kent expressed disappointment that the San José–Tegucigalpa Accord—brokered between the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti and ousted president Manuel Zelaya under the auspices of Óscar Arias, president of Costa Rica, and the U.S. State Department—had not been “fully implemented.” But he promised that Canada would support efforts to “reintegrate Honduras” into the Organization of American States (OAS) once that nation had returned to “full democratic and constitutional order.”

The suggestion that the Tegucigalpa–San José Accord had not been “fully implemented” took diplomatic euphemism into the realm of theater of the absurd. The accord called for a government of national reconciliation, which was never formed. It called for the accreditation of international observers, yet the OAS could not send an electoral-observation mission without the invitation of both the Zelaya and Micheletti camps (which it never received). And it called for a vote in Congress to decide whether to restore Zelaya to executive power but, fatally, did not set a deadline. The vote was held after the election, and, in a slap in the face to the OAS, the Congress ratified Zelaya’s removal from office. The only significant component of the accord that seemed as if it might be implemented was the appointment of a truth commission by the Lobo administration.

Faced with what might better be described as the complete failure of the accord, the international community faced a stark choice indeed. Normalizing relations with Honduras meant, in effect, accepting that caretaker coups are permissible in the eyes of the inter-American community as long as they culminate in elections—even if the elections, held in a context of crackdowns on civil and political liberties and restrictions on freedom of the press, and marred by boycotts and abstentions, were not observed by the OAS and could not be certified as free and fair by the international community.

By such standards, the 2002 coup in Venezuela would have been tolerated, provided elections were called soon after President Hugo Chávez was removed—which, of course, was exactly what Pedro Carmona, the leading coup plotter, promised. Given the high stakes of accepting the election results in Honduras, and the damaging precedent it sets for the hemisphere, why was Canada so quick to accept the election’s outcome? Indeed, why did Canada oppose efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the elections, both before and after they were held? The answer is simple, but it exposes deeper enigmas.

Canadian government officials never liked nor trusted Zelaya. Although they did not break ranks with the Latin American countries and the rest of the international community calling for his restitution, they were privately relieved that he was not restored to power. They placed their hopes in the prospect that elections would resolve the “impasse” without further disruption. Throughout the Honduran crisis, Canada moved in lockstep with the United States, even as U.S. policy diverged from the hemispheric consensus.

The decision to follow the United States’ lead on the Honduran crisis revealed inherent ambiguities in Canada’s engagement with the Americas. Helping the United States achieve its objectives in the hemisphere, even when pursued by unilateral means, clashes with Canada’s frequently stated commitment to multilateralism and democracy. Since joining the OAS in 1990, Canada worked hard to be a respected and constructive player in the region’s most important multilateral organization. Within the OAS Canada played a key role in creating the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy and developing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an idea proposed by Peru at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.2 Yet Canadian policy makers are wary of being caught in the crossfire between the United States and governments in Latin America. As Canada’s response to the Honduran coup indicates, falling in line with the United States is the dominant tendency under the Harper government.

Harper is one of the most ideological prime ministers in recent memory. Although he framed Canadian engagement in terms of seeking a middle ground between ideological extremes, this framing perversely reinforced an unfortunate trend of dichotomizing the hemisphere along ideological lines—with the Bolivarian alternative on one side and free traders on the other. Since Canada was decidedly aligned with the free traders, fewer and fewer countries bought the so-called third way that Canada peddled and increasingly regarded the supposedly multilateral Beaver, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, as a virtual agent of the unilateral Eagle.


Ottawa’s initial response to the coup in Honduras was auspicious. “Canada condemns the coup d’état that took place over the weekend in Honduras,” read a statement from the Harper government.3 Canadian officials upheld multilateral principles by joining the rest of the hemisphere in invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter to expel Honduras from the OAS. As the crisis dragged on, however, it became increasingly evident that Canada was ambivalent about Zelaya and saw elections as the key mechanism to defuse the crisis.

The ranking Canadian official involved was minister Kent. A former journalist, Kent was elected to Parliament in October 2008. In the 1980s he reported on Nicaragua while working for NBC in Miami. As his website proclaims, “His beat spanned an era when many countries of the region struggled to survive communism and narco-terrorism.” Kent enjoyed a cordial and close working relationship with OAS secretary general José Miguel Insulza, and both Zelaya and Micheletti took him seriously. He was an active participant in most of the key meetings, and when he could not be in Washington or Tegucigalpa, he spent a lot of time working the phones from Ottawa.

Although Kent criticized the coup, his statements often reflected ambivalence toward Zelaya, some of which was personal. Zelaya’s decision to fly back to Tegucigalpa shortly after the coup, where he was prevented from landing by troops on the runway, was cheered by some as a heroic act of defiance, but Canadian diplomats regarded it as imprudent and unhelpful. Democracy Now’s Andrés Thomas Conteris, who served as an interpreter for the ousted president while he was holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, explained by e-mail that Canada’s irritation with Zelaya was regularly conveyed by Kent in his telephone diplomacy, during which the minister “blatantly attacked [Zelaya] or made direct complaints.”

More importantly, perhaps, Kent chastised Zelaya for contributing to the crisis that resulted in his overthrow, saying, “There has to be an appreciation of the events that led up to the coup.”4 Asked to clarify, Kent said the coup was “unquestionably illegal and must be reversed,” but that Canada “recognizes the context which preceded the coup” and that the “Supreme Court and Congress had acted within the constitutional framework up to the moment that the armed forces arrested and expelled Zelaya.”5

Yet the Congress and Supreme Court could be criticized for refusing to accept Zelaya’s right as president to remove the chief of the armed forces.6 Is it not possible for the judiciary or congress to be a facilitator of a coup—as occurred, of course, in Chile in 1973?7 Moreover, if we accept that these organs acted within the Constitution prior to the coup, it follows that Zelaya’s insistence on holding a non-binding consultation (consulta popular) on constitutional reform was illegal and unconstitutional. That is, after all, exactly what the Congress and court said. The view that the coup represented a constitutional change in government was presented by former Honduran official Octavio Sánchez in The Christian Science Monitor. The argument boils down to the claim that a president can be sent into exile for the expediency of not having him around while he is replaced, on the grounds that by holding a nonbinding poll, he showed intent to illegally change the constitution.8

Although such an interpretation does not justify the coup, it would straitjacket the push for constitutional change in Honduras. A major dilemma for policy makers in the international community was whether Zelaya’s ouster could be characterized as a coup on the grounds that it was unconstitutional when the nation’s congress and courts insisted that they were only upholding the Constitution. Hiding behind the excuse that it was not up to them to decide what is in line with the Honduran constitution was not good enough, since the Inter-American Democratic Charter essentially requires the international community to make judgments about what is constitutional and what is not.9

A straitjacket against constitutional change was exactly what the Honduran political elite wanted. Why did they regard an initiative as innocuous as a non-binding consultation on constitutional reform to be a fundamental threat to their democracy? Zelaya’s growing alignment with Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) in the latter part of his term provided the context in which the coup coalition formed.10 Honduran political elites, acting out of an exaggerated fear of change, sought to prevent Honduras from following a script that had been played out in Venezuela, Ecuador, and, with qualifications, Bolivia.11


As the months passed, it became increasingly evident that Zelaya would not be restored to office before the November elections. The de facto government gambled that it could run out the clock. Once elections were held, it reasoned, the international community would be presented with a fait accompli. Micheletti himself impeccably stated the logic of the position in a Washington Post editorial. “Although much of the international community disagrees with our past actions,” he asserted, “we can all agree on the necessity of ensuring Honduras’s full commitment to the electoral process. . . . I have said from the moment I was sworn in as president of Honduras that I do not intend to remain in office one second more than what our constitution mandates.”12

Having expelled Honduras from the OAS immediately after the coup, the international community had little further multilateral leverage. The United States was the only country with much material bilateral leverage. Belatedly, it revoked the visas of numerous Hondurans associated with the coup and suspended $16.5 million in military aid. The European Union suspended about $90 million in aid, and Honduras’s neighbors El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua announced a temporary cessation of cross-border trade. International institutions similarly began to withhold funds, with the World Bank announcing a “pause” on the release of $270 million.

Meanwhile, Kent insisted that it was not the right time “to talk about suspending, cutting aid or imposing sanctions.”13 Admittedly, Canada’s bilateral leverage over Honduras was limited. Military assistance amounted to little more than language training. Honduras was a significant recipient of Canadian official development assistance, Kent told the CBC in a July 2009 interview, but aid for 2009 had already been disbursed. (According to the Canadian International Development Agency’s website, its 2007–08 “disbursements for projects and initiatives in Honduras” totaled more than $17 million.) Yet Canadian investors were major players in Honduras. The reluctance to impose sanctions was mainly due to the Harper government’s refusal to jeopardize Canadian business interests in Honduras. Asked by a journalist whether Canadian policy was driven by business interests, Kent replied that “Canadians should be proud” of multinationals like apparel manufacturer Gildan Activewear and mining company Goldcorp.14

The other source of leverage the international community held was refusal to accept the legitimacy of November elections. Neither Canada nor the United States would play this card. Both opposed resolutions by the OAS that would have rejected the elections in November without the prior reinstatement of Zelaya. By early October, the media were speculating that Canada and the United States, along with a handful of other countries like Costa Rica and Peru, were toying with the idea of dropping Zelaya’s return to power as a precondition for accepting the November elections.15

Canadian officials hotly disputed such claims. Still, by the end of the month the United States had brokered the ill-fated Tegucigalpa–San José Accord and signaled its intention to accept the outcome of the election with or without Zelaya’s restoration. Canada tacitly did the same, even if it never publicly stated this view.

The agreement included a provision requiring that all parties desist from “calls for a National Constituent Assembly, either directly or indirectly,” and also renounce “the promotion or support of any public consultation for the purpose of reforming the Constitution to permit presidential reelection, modify the form of Government or contravene any of the unamendable articles in our Founding Charter.” A tighter straitjacket could not have been found. But this was not enough for the de facto government in Honduras, which perceived correctly that U.S. acceptance of the election outcome was the only guarantee it needed.

The hope that elections would defuse the crisis, even after failure of the Tegucigalpa–San José Accord, meant that neither the United States nor Canada had much to gain from making a fuss about rights violations. That could only create doubts about the legitimacy of the November elections. But the violence enacted against those who protested the coup is hardly contestable. According to the human rights group Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), there were at least 708 documented cases of human rights violations, including the right to physical integrity, free association, peaceable protest, free movement, and life.16 Moreover, the killing and kidnapping of labor activists and supporters of Zelaya has continued since Lobo’s inauguration, demonstrating that the repressive forces unleashed by the coup have not been put back inside Pandora’s box.17

Before the election, Kent expressed concern about violence by “calling on all parties to show restraint, to refrain from any actions that could lead to further violence, and to respect the right of Hondurans to peace and security,” and encouraging “national dialogue and reconciliation involving representatives of both parties.” The effort to be balanced was parodied by Globe and Mail columnist Douglas Bell: “Presumably by ‘both parties’ Kent means, on the one hand, the party getting its teeth kicked in and their heads split open, on the other, the party doing the kicking and the splitting.”18

These violations were not irrelevant to the electoral process. Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy, reported from Tegucigalpa: “The coup’s dictatorial decrees restricting freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of movement held the nation in a virtual state of siege in the weeks prior to the elections. Over forty registered candidates resigned in protest. Members of the resistance movement were harassed, beaten and detained. In San Pedro Sula, an election-day march was brutally repressed.”19

On the night of the election, Honduras’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) released the election results, claiming that 62% of the electorate had gone to the polls, in what many have interpreted as a deliberate inflation of the election figures to give the process, as well as the coup itself, legitimacy. It was within this window that many countries, including Canada, endorsed the election results on December 1. Several days later, the TSE revised the number of those who voted down to 49%, which, after subtracting blank or spoiled ballots, falls to about 45% of the electorate. Having secured 57% of the votes, and assuming zero fraud, Lobo’s vote tally represents 26% of the electorate (about 1.2 million out of 4.6 million registered voters)—in an election in which the majority did not participate, held under conditions that could not be certified as meeting international standards of fairness and freedom, and in the context of the call for a boycott by the outgoing president.


Bolivian ambassador to the OAS José Pinelo expressed the disappointment felt by many in the region when he said at a December meeting of the OAS that “recognizing Mr. Lobo is the same as recognizing Micheletti” and “trusting that those who took power with guns on June 28, suddenly turned into democrats on November 29.”

Nonetheless, it seems likely that most countries will gradually choose to recognize the Lobo government, restore diplomatic relations where they had been broken, and, at some point, a critical mass will emerge to enable Honduras to return to the OAS. This points to the failure of the OAS, which, ironically, has been subject to scathing criticism in Washington.20 It has been a disappointing denouement from the standpoint of the sort of multilateral diplomacy Canada has historically championed.

Yet the sense of relief in Ottawa was palpable. In an upbeat visit to Honduras during three days in February, Kent met with both senior officials and Canadian entrepreneurs operating in Honduras. Shortly thereafter, Canadian textile entrepreneurs from Gildan Activewear promised to make $200 million in new investments provided the Lobo government could guarantee their juridical and legal security.21 Business as usual had returned to Honduras.

To date, Canada’s “engagement” in the Americas has yielded few results. Apart from a couple of bilateral free trade agreements, which indubitably benefit Canadian investors, Canada’s standing in the hemisphere has not been enhanced by the tendency of the Harper government to play divide and rule. In fact, it has made Canada the target of negative attention in the region.

In light of Canada’s acceptance of the Honduran election outcome, despite gross democratic deficiencies, Kent’s criticisms in January of the “shrinking democratic space in Venezuela” rang hollow. “Freedom of expression and access to information from a wide range of sources are fundamental elements of a healthy democracy,” the minister said in a statement on his website, making an argument that should be taken seriously in Venezuela, but also in Honduras—not to mention Colombia, where the hard-hitting investigative magazine Cambio was temporarily closed by its owner seeking a license to operate a TV network. More to the point, Harper’s constitutional democratic credentials are hardly above reproach. Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, responded to Kent’s criticisms by saying that Venezuela will take no advice from a prime minister who had prorogued (closed) Parliament to avoid debate over the role of Canada in the torture of Afghan detainees. Indeed, criticism of Harper’s penchant for proroguing Parliament has a solid foundation: constitutional experts have argued that the closure of Parliament to avoid a vote of non-confidence, which occurred in late 2008, was of dubious constitutionality.22

It is not just Canada’s bilateral relationships that are at stake. In late February, while Kent was in Tegucigalpa, Latin American and Caribbean leaders met in Cancún, Mexico, to launch a new regional political and economic organization that would exclude both Canada and the United States. This tentatively named Community of Latin American and Caribbean States would provide a forum for the leaders of the hemisphere outside the OAS, where the United States is still seen as too dominant. With characteristic elegance, a Brazilian diplomat offered this reassurance to Canada: “I don’t really see [the new multilateral organization in the hemisphere] as a measure to exclude Canada or the US from the Americas. We do have our hemisphere, but within the hemisphere there are differences between the countries, and those countries that are still in development decided to talk.”23

However you sugarcoat it, the meaning is clear: Canada is “them,” not “us.”

Maxwell A. Cameron teaches comparative politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. He is the editor (with Eric Hershberg) of Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics, Policies and Trajectories of Change (Lynne Rienner Publishers, forthcoming). Jason Tockman is a Ph.D. student of political science at the University of British Columbia, and a regular contributor to NACLA.

1. Thanks to Ricardo Grinspun and Eric Hershberg, who read and commented on an earlier draft of this article.

2. Peter McKenna, Canada and the OAS: From Dilettante to Full Partner (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995).

3. “Canada Condemns Honduran Coup,” Canwest News Service, June 29, 2009.

4. Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, “Envoy Prepares to Visit Honduras,” The New York Times, July 3, 2009.

5. Interview with Peter Kent, The Current, CBC, July 29, 2009.

6. Leticia Salomón, “Honduras: Políticos, empresarios y militares: protagonistas de un golpe anunciado,” Envío no. 328 (July 2009).

7. See, again, Leticia Salomón, “El Golpe de Estado en Honduras: Caracterización, evolucion y perspectives,” Enlace Academico Centroamericano, July 3, 2009.

8. Octavio Sánchez, “A ‘Coup’ in Honduras? Nonsense,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 2009.

9. “Background Briefing on the Situation in Honduras,” U.S. Department of State, June 28, 2009. The case for considering Zelaya’s removal a coup was well made by Doug Cassel, “Honduras: Coup d’Etat in Constitutional Clothing?” The American Society of International Law 13, no. 9 (July 29, 2009).

10. Zelaya’s metamorphosis is nicely recounted in William Finnegan, “An Old-Fashioned Coup,” The New Yorker 85, no. 39 (November 30, 2009): 38–45.

11. The same ideological frame is used in Roger Noriega, “A Coup in Honduras,” Forbes.com, July 29, 2009

12. Roberto Micheletti, “Moving Forward in Honduras” (editorial), The Washington Post, September 22, 2009.

13. Laura Payton, “No Plans for Sanctions Against Honduras: Kent,” Embassy (Ottawa), August 25, 2009.

14. Interview with Peter Kent, The Current, CBC, July 29, 2009.

15. See Patrick Markey and Esteban Israel, “Honduras Resists Demand to Lift Emergency Decree,” Reuters, October 1, 2009.

16. Dina Meza, “COFADEH documentó 708 casos de violaciones a los derechos humanos de junio a diciembre” (COFADEH, Tegucigalpa, January 19, 2010). A December 30, 2009, report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, titled “Honduras: derechos humanos y golpe de estado,” was similarly critical of rights violations.

17. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “IACHR Deplores Murders, Kidnappings and Attacks in Honduras,” press release, no. 26/10, March 8, 2010.

18. Douglas Bell, “Peter Kent: Man on a Mission,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 7, 2009. See also the minister’s webpage, international.gc.ca/international/honduras.aspx.

19. Laura Carlsen, “The Sham Elections in Honduras,” The Nation, December 14, 2009.

20. “Mr. Obama Should Press for Changes at the OAS” (editorial), The Washington Post, February 10, 2010; Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Multilateralism in the Americas: Let’s Start by Fixing the OAS, 111th Cong., 2d. sess., January 26, 2010, S. Prt. 111–42.

21. “Canadienses ofrecen aumentar inversions a $200 millones,” La Tribuna (Tegucigalpa), March 5, 2010.

22. See Andrew Heard, “The Governor General’s Decision to Prorogue Parliament: Parliamentary Democracy Defended or Endangered?” Centre for Constitutional Studies, discussion paper no. 7, 2009.

23. Carl Meyer, “OAS Still Best Forum for Americas: Kent,” The Embassy (Ottawa), March 3, 2010.


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