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State of Siege in Honduras

Last Sunday, the de facto president of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, declared a state of siege in the Central American country for 45 days. He coupled the decision, which has yet to be ratified by the Honduran Congress, with a series of military raids and closures of opposition media, and with an ultimatum to the Brazilian government to define the status of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who sought shelter in the Brazilian Embassy upon his unexpected return to the country last week. For good measure, the minister of foreign affairs of the current government told the press that the Honduran military had not raided the compound of the Embassy "out of courtesy", implying that they would do so in a matter of days.

In doing all this, the current authorities have exhibited the same level of prudence and subtlety that led them on June 28 to depose a legitimately elected president – one that was behaving erratically, it is true – by sending in the military to arrest him in the middle of the night and shuffle him in his pyjamas into a plane to Costa Rica. The deposed president had very low levels of popularity and less than 8 months to go until the end of his term. Faced with a bad problem – a populist president hell bent on amending the Constitution to secure his future (not consecutive) reelection – they came up with a much worse solution. Why they didn’t prosecute the president and make him stand before a judge for his illegal deeds, as normal democracies do, remains a mystery.

What has ensued is a political plot of deplorable quality, a kind of pulp version of a Graham Greene novelette. It is unnecessary to detail here the sheer irrationality that has prevented both parties from reaching a temporary settlement that would allow the country to return to some kind of institutional normality. It suffices to say that with the backing of the international community, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica put on the table a rather reasonable agreement that would allow for the return of Zelaya to the presidency but not to power, for his prerogatives would have been subject to all kinds of checks. And this for very few months. The mercurial Zelaya accepted the deal, but not his dogged pursuers, who continue to delude themselves and tire the world with their claims that they are acting with pristine regard for the Honduran Constitution and the best practices of international law. They won’t have any of Zelaya, come hell or high water.

Now hell or high water will almost certainly arrive. With the state of siege, Micheletti has all but foregone any hope that the November 29 presidential elections will be accepted as legitimate by the international community. Up to now, and even with the threat by a lot of countries of not accepting the results of the poll, it seemed clear that a reasonably free and fair election in Honduras was an essential element in any solution to the crisis. With the state of siege, even observers sympathetic to the election (like myself) will have to admit that conditions in Honduras are simply not conducive to the celebration of an election worthy of international recognition. What is more, it is very difficult to argue now that what Zelaya’s ousters have put in place to replace him is anything other than a plain dictatorship. Despite the serious reservations that one may have about Manuel Zelaya, between him and a throwback to the darkest ages in Latin American political history, most reasonable observers will take Zelaya any day.

The lack of legitimacy of the forthcoming election will almost surely prolong this crisis beyond the end of this term. And, as usual, it will be the poorest Hondurans who will pick up the tab.

Thus, to the already steep road toward political normalization in Honduras, an essential step has been added. Lifting the state of siege, immediately and unconditionally, as well as restraining themselves from so much as touching the Brazilian Embassy, are the only ways the current authorities in Honduras will be able to retain their already dim hope that the November elections will help to put an end to this unfortunate story. Even if they do so, however, their latest mistake may well prove one stupid act too many.

  • Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy and in the Latin America Initiative at Brookings. Most recently, Casas-Zamora served as Costa Rica’s vice president, as well as minister of national planning and economic policy.

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