What's Next For Honduras?

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has reiterated his vow to quickly return to his country to re-assume his rightful place as the nation's president. This week will be a determinant moment in the outcome of the crisis caused by the June 28 military coup against Zelaya. The major players in this crisis have all shown signs of growing impatience with the current situation, meaning that everything could come to a head.

July 13, 2009

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has vowed to return to his country this week to re-assume his rightful place as the nation's president. The coup government, meanwhile, has reiterated its intention to arrest the deposed President upon his arrival, as it seeks to further tighten its illegitimate grip on power.

This week will be a determinant moment in the outcome of the crisis caused by the June 28 military coup against Zelaya. The perpetrators and allies of the coup (collectively known as "golpistas" in Spanish) have feigned overtures toward negotiations, but have emphatically ruled out Zelaya's return to the presidency. Illegal president Roberto Micheletti and the golpistas have signaled they are willing to wait out the protests and withstand his junta's international pariah status, whatever the consequences. The major players in this crisis have all shown signs of growing impatience with the current situation, meaning that everything could come to a head this week.

In response, some sources say the golpistas have resorted to dirty war tactics. On July 11, unidentified gunmen killed two members of the Popular Bloc, a loose coalition of groups coordinating anti-coup protests. In reference to the murders, Juan Barahona, a leader of the Popular Bloc, said, "It's the only way the government can keep itself in power, terrorizing and killing the people…. Its only option is to kill leaders; the government has no other way of sustaining itself." Besides being members of the anti-coup Popular Bloc, the murdered men, Roger Iván Bados and Ramón García, were also militants of the left-leaning Democratic Unification party – the only large political party openly against the coup.

Tepidly seeking a way out, the coup leaders hinted at the possibility of granting Zelaya a political amnesty and moving up the date of the presidential elections slated for November 29. Both options are non-starters for Zelaya and those demanding his return. The political amnesty proposal was first floated by the Supreme Court chief and would dissolve most of the 18 trumped up charges against the President. But Zelaya's allies quickly ruled out the amnesty option since it would not reinstate him as President; they also note he never did anything illegal. Many pro-coup politicians are also against the amnesty.

Ironically, the golpistas point to the Honduran constitution, which undeniably bars presidential re-election in at least four separate articles, as evidence that the coup was somehow "legal." The problem is that Zelaya's proposed non-binding referendum, which ostensibly sparked the coup, never, not once, mentions re-election. The referendum simply asked voters their "yes or no" opinion on writing a new constitution. Even if the referendum had passed – the vote was thwarted by the coup – it is not at all clear whether a constitutional assembly would have been approved through the established institutional channels (referendums, congress, the courts, etc.). Finally, it would have been up to the democratically elected constitutional assembly to hammer out the content of the new constitution, including term limits.

Zelaya's supporters also point out that the constitution plainly states that no Honduran "owes allegiance to an usurping government nor those who assume public office via force of arms … The acts taken by such authorities are null." The constitution concludes, "The people have the right to recur to insurrection in order to defend the constitutional order."

The golpistas' proposal of moving the November 29 presidential elections to an earlier date under the coup's stewardship shows that any negotiated "solution" favored by the de facto regime will seek to thwart the almost certain political backlash at the polls. A recent letter by U.S. academics condemning the coup noted, "Each day that the illegal coup regime remains in office further jeopardizes the capacity for Honduras to enjoy free and fair elections in November, let alone in an earlier time frame." Indeed, the recent assassination of the two Democratic Unification members sends a chilling message to all anti-coup political activists.

Amid escalating violence and rightfully growing impatient, Zelaya's intention to return ups the ante and the past shows he's not one to bluff. Timing is a critical part of his calculus: The golpistas want to stall, keeping their holding pattern as long as possible, hoping to suck the air out of the protests while eroding (with time and propaganda) international and national support for Zelaya. If they can keep the status quo until November and hold "elections" under their military rule, they will have succeeded in their objectives.

Zelaya's move to enter Honduras would be an attempt to prevent that scenario. If he manages to enter the country, the golpistas would have their backs up against the wall, and they know it. They would be faced with two choices, none of which play favorably to their "cause": Either arrest the President or allow him to wage his campaign for reinstatement from within the country's borders. The golpistas have repeatedly stated they will opt for the first option – arrest.

Arresting him would result in massive repression against the wave of popular mobilization Zelaya would be riding in his move on the presidential palace, deepening the regime's crisis of legitimacy. The result could be devastating. It could well turn out to be an even more tragic repeat of the violence witnessed on July 5 at the Tocontín International Airport when the President's plane was barred from landing by a military blockade of the runway. Angry crowds, clamoring for the return of democracy, were brutally shot with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds, leaving at least two dead and an untold number of wounded. The regime's warped survival instinct will probably lead it to make the same mistake of crushing the protests, inciting more anger, loss of life and stiffer resistance.

Those opposing the coup – most of Hondurans according to a recent poll – have valiantly been the protagonists of this saga. It is they who have most consistently and forcefully led the charge for the immediate and unconditional return of Zelaya to the presidency, paying for their actions in blood. The coup government's partial lifting of nighttime curfews – in an effort to internationally project an air of normalcy and appeasement – will do little to quell the mobilizations, particularly if Zelaya tries to return.

The wild card if Zelaya returns is Washington's position. The Obama White House has carefully followed the lead of Latin American governments, while vocally denouncing the coup and supporting Zelaya's immediate return. Zelaya has vocally praised the Obama administration's response to the coup. But it is unclear how Obama and his team would react to Zelaya's planned return. The Obama team's response will partly be determined by the de facto regime's own actions on the ground. If Zelaya tries to return and massive repression ensues, then the White House could comfortably stand on the side of democracy and human rights by strongly supporting Zelaya and the civil movement behind him. Some Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, have urged Obama to take a tougher stance.

The White House voted with the entirety of the hemisphere in the Organization of American States (OAS) to "condemn vehemently" the "coup d'état" against Zelaya while calling for his "immediate and unconditional" return. Despite the unequivocal resolution, the OAS once again proved ineffective – particularly, the organization's inability to act preventively when the golpistas began stirring in the months before the coup. After the resolution, the OAS chief failed to convince the golpistas to step down, leading to Honduras' suspension from the inter-American organization – the first such reprimand since 1962.

After the OAS failed, center-left Latin American leaders and the U.S. State Department solicited the mediation of Nobel Peace Laureate and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Both Micheletti and Zelaya reacted positively to Costa Rica's proposed mediation, and they met separately with Arias on July 9. But neither side reported any tangible advances and their public positions remain irreconcilable. Both sides know these talks will get nowhere, and the golpistas have time on their side.

Street mobilizations demanding Zelaya's reinstatement are now into their third week. Tomorrow, July 13, adherents of the Popular Bloc have called a broad meeting to discuss upcoming tactics and strategy. Trade unions, campesino groups, student and youth organizations, and human rights and environmental advocacy groups will attend the meeting.

Teo Ballvé is a freelance journalist and NACLA Web Editor.

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