An Electoral Defeat for Democracy: The Regional Implications of the Honduran Vote

On November 29, 2009, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was declared the winner of the Honduran Presidential election, collecting 56% of the votes cast. Under ordinary circumstances, the center-right politician's electoral victory in this small, impoverished nation would hardly garner notice from all but the keenest observers of the region's political scene. But for observers in Latin America, where tremendous strides have been made in overcoming the legacy of political violence and military dictatorship - accompanied in many cases by the empowering of popular sectors - what transpired in the run-up to the election created circumstances that were far from ordinary.

Reed M. Kurtz

On November 29, 2009, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was declared the winner of the Honduran Presidential election, collecting 56% of the votes cast. Under ordinary circumstances, the center-right politician's electoral victory in this small, impoverished nation would hardly garner notice from all but the keenest observers of the region's political scene. But for observers in Latin America, where tremendous strides have been made in overcoming the legacy of political violence and military dictatorship - accompanied in many cases by the empowering of popular sectors - what transpired in the run-up to the election created circumstances that were far from ordinary.

June's military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the ensuing repression and violence at the hands of Roberto Micheletti's de facto regime cast dark shadows on Lobo's victory and the legitimacy of his incoming administration. Accordingly, at the dawn of this new decade, the hemisphere's response to these events is an important indicator of which nations and leaders are seeking to progress towards social justice and popular democracy, and which are willing to perpetuate the status quo or even revert back to the authoritarianism of the past.

This past June 28, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was whisked from his bed in the middle of the night and exiled to Costa Rica in a coup d'état orchestrated by powerful members of the Honduran oligarchy. From that point forward, with popular demonstrations against the coup and in support of ousted President Zelaya occurring nearly daily, Micheletti's junta has been keen to use the tool of violence to maintain authority against the will of a determined opposition. More than 3,000 Honduran citizens have been "beaten and detained," hundreds more wounded in clashes with the police, and at least 28 members of the nonviolent resistance movement have been murdered. Media outlets and journalists critical of the regime and its tactics have been frequent targets of abuse and repression. As recently as January 7, an opposition radio station was incinerated in an arson attack.

The Micheletti regime has also made a mockery of international law and convention, not simply by ignoring the stern condemnations from the international community but, most notably, by laying siege to the Brazilian embassy where President Zelaya sought refuge upon his return to the country. Additionally, the Micheletti government violated the terms of the San Jose Accord (despite the severely diluted language favoring the de facto regime) by refusing to reinstate Zelaya, even temporarily, to the presidency.

Amidst these already severe conditions within the country, in the days leading up to the vote a new "state of emergency" was declared, putting an even tighter stranglehold on the Honduran people and further curtailing free expression.

Despite all the violence, censorship, and boycotts by the opposition front and more than 100 registered politicians, this "parody" of a democratic election was pressed forth under the watchful eyes of more than 30,000 well-armed security forces and the rapt attention of the international community. After the ballots were cast and counted, official totals released by the coup government reported voter participation at 62%. However an independent investigation found this number significantly inflated from the actual voter participation total of 49%, indicating that more than half of eligible Honduran voters didn't take part and casting an even darker shadow over the election's legitimacy.

But how did the rest of the world, and in particular the nations of Latin America, respond? And more importantly, what do these responses mean for the future of the region as a whole?

First, the overwhelming majority of nations in the world and western hemisphere have refused to accept the legitimacy of the Honduran election, leaving only a handful to do so: Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Peru, the United States, and Israel. This is significant, but at the same time it is important not to overstate the importance of this limited recognition; there are significant prospects for the incoming Lobo administration to simply assume legitimacy once it takes power on January 27, effectively securing the primary objective of the currently non-recognized coup government.

Of the nations that have unequivocally and effectively renounced the legitimacy of the coup regime and its orchestration of the November election, the left leaning nations of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) stand at the forefront. In a move completely consistent with their opposition to the coup regime from the very beginning, these eight nations (there were nine before the coup-installed government pulled Honduras out) have not only announced that they consider the election "illegal and illegitimate," but they have called for those "morally responsible for the military coup in Honduras to be brought to international justice for their crimes."

It is of course worth remembering that Zelaya was responsible for bringing Honduras into the ALBA bloc and pursuing progressive reforms and strategic alliances with Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and other leading leftists in the region. These reforms and alliances, of course, were key factors in his expulsion at the hands of the golpistas.

Even the more moderate nations in Latin America have taken strong stands against the legitimacy of the election. The four founding members of the South American economic pact Mercosur, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, issued a strongly-worded joint statement that clearly rejected the legitimacy of the vote and noted that the coup and its election was "a blow to the region's democratic values." Presidents Lula da Silva and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Brazil and Argentina, respectively, each issued their own statements strongly denouncing the legitimacy of the election under the conditions imposed by the coup regime. The center-left government of Chile has also expressed concern about the legitimacy of the vote, and even Felipe Calderón's conservative government in Mexico, without issuing formal recognition of Lobo's win, has offered itself as a safe haven for President Zelaya so that he can finally leave the confines of the Brazilian Embassy where he is still encamped.

Among the Latin American nations, only Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, and Panama, have recognized the Honduran election. The latter three's recognition comes as little surprise, as each is led by a staunchly conservative administration. Colombia and Peru in particular, the top two recipients of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere are led by right-wing politicians prone to bellicose rhetoric and terrible human rights records of their own. President Alvaro Uribe's Colombian regime has been directly linked to vicious right-wing paramilitaries, some of whom have been directly linked to the Honduran coup leaders.Alan García's Peruvian government was responsible for the mass murder of dozens of indigenous protestors this past summer, and reportedly supplied armaments to the coup regime to use against its own people.

Of these four nations, Costa Rica is perhaps the biggest surprise. President Oscar Arias seems at times genuinely concerned about the conditions in Honduras, having decried the constitution that Zelaya was deposed for trying to reform as the "worst in the world," and having led the mediation efforts that ultimately failed. But now it seems that his recognition can be interpreted as an attempt to save face in the wake of the San Jose accord's collapse, a caving in to U.S. pressure, or both.

This of course leaves us with the most important player in this state of affairs, the United States. Throughout the several months since Zelaya's expulsion, the Obama administration has been characteristically cautious in its dealings with the Honduran coup regime, in many ways a refreshing change in comparison with the previous administration's handling of the last major coup in Latin America. In September the State Department did take a measured degree of action, officially declaring Zelaya's removal a coup and slashing millions of dollars of financial aid to the country. But despite the rhetoric and hope for real change under the new administration, old habits apparently die hard. Foreign aid continues to flow to the country via the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, powerful Washington figures consistently press their support for the golpistas, and finally, conflicting and ambiguous messages from the administration betray the lack of political will for justifiable action towards the country.

On the night of the election, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela announced that the United States would recognize Pepe Lobo's victory, despite the reservations about the coup and the human rights violations that preceded and accompanied it. While stating that this recognition is merely the first step in a reconciliation process to restore the "democratic and constitutional order," Valenzuela neglected to mention that he had effectively aided the coup regime in accomplishing their primary goal: to restore the oligarchic political and economic order that existed in Honduras previous to Zelaya's time in office. Consequently, Washington's recognition evokes not-so-distant memories of its promotion of farcical "elections" in the Salvadoran and Guatemalan terror states of the 1980s.

This leaves the region in quite a bind. Had the United States stuck with its early message that it would not recognize the results if the election was conducted under authoritarian circumstances, and had it followed through with some real pressure on the regime, there might have been a real chance to influence the Micheletti government directly, and to send a clear democratic message to other right-wing leaders in the region as well. Instead, Latin American nations will now be pressed to choose sides. They can recognize the Lobo government and give tacit legitimacy to the coup, or they can stick to their ideals and refuse recognition. The rift between the leading governments on the left, in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and the right, in Colombia and Peru, will only increase its potential to grow deeper and for relationships to grow more volatile, especially as the United States continues to enlarge its own regional military presence. And perhaps most troubling of all, this will only give further incentive for right-wing interests in the hemisphere to use violence and oppression, with or without the mask of "defending the constitution," to maintain their firm grasp on the political and economic levers of Latin American society and roll back what progress has been made in the region.

It is here that a striking opportunity appears for Brazil to truly emerge as a positive force in the region. To this point and throughout this crisis, Brazil under Lula's leadership has risen to the occasion, from sheltering Zelaya in the embassy in Tegucigalpa to Lula's powerful speeches on the UN floor to his unequivocal denial of the legitimacy of this election. But Brazil's own election later this year will bring a new leader to the fore, and it's by no means certain that Brazil will maintain its current position on Honduras over the long term. The leading candidate in the presidential race, the conservative Jose Serra, has been critical of Lula's continued support for Zelaya. Even Dilma Rousseff, Lula's own chief of staff and the PT's candidate to take his spot, has issued statements that indicate that even she might change Brazil's course on this subject.

Nor can we forget the role of Spain, Europe's closest relation to Latin America and the largest donor of foreign aid to the region, which will "neither recognize nor ignore" (but not condemn) the election, leaving the door wide open for recognition down the road.

Meanwhile, the Honduran popular front, having brought Mel Zelaya and his attempted progressive reforms to the forefront, and having weathered this storm for the past six months, remains steadfast, determined, and assured of the moral force of its cause. Whether Honduras is ever truly able to escape the legacy of violence, poverty, oppression, and injustice, ultimately lies in the hands of its people.

Reed M. Kurtz is a NACLA Research Associate

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