Courting Disaster in Honduras

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

September 23, 2009

When the deposed president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, unexpectedly showed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa Monday, he dramatically altered the dynamics of the ongoing political crisis in the Central American country. Zelaya’s cheerfully triumphant return will quickly be met with a sharp reality: The president’s presence in Honduras will almost certainly shift the conflict from the negotiating table to the streets.

Up to this point, crisis moderators have focused on the planned Nov. 29 presidential election — and the legitimacy of its result, particularly if Zelaya is not reinstalled prior to the vote. But now that Zelaya is back in town, his priority will be to show that he enjoys the kind of massive popular support within Honduras that would warrant his return, an open question throughout this crisis. And unless the current government authorities, led by de facto President Roberto Micheletti, unwisely decide to contain pro-Zelaya demonstrators with naked force (a move that would further erode their already precarious international position), their best option will also be to mobilize their own supporters onto the streets. Thus, a cycle of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in the capital looms. In a polarized country awash with guns, it is impossible to know where such a cycle may lead, but one can imagine unpleasant results. At this point, the immediate focus of the international community will have to shift from crisis resolution to simply preventing violence from engulfing Honduras.

This very frightening distraction makes reaching a political settlement ever more difficult. Some elements of the previous San José agreement, shaped by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias during settlement talks this summer, are still very relevant. Already-agreed-upon tenets such as the blanket amnesty for the illegal actions of both sides and some kind of power-sharing agreement between now and the elections make sense. But other elements, such as the immediate reinstatement of Zelaya to the presidency, may have to be rethought. As a matter of principle, restoring an ousted president makes perfect sense. In context, insisting on Zelaya’s comeback risks thwarting any negotiation from even beginning.

With just two months to go before the election, international pressure alone is unlikely to force Micheletti to relinquish the presidency and allow Zelaya to take the reins. Honduras’ donors, friends, and allies could crank up the pressure by refusing to accept the results of the Nov. 29 election as legitimate. This is precisely what quite a few countries — notably the United States — have threatened to do.

Acting on those warnings, however, would be a serious mistake. However imperfect, the election still offers the best route to restore some kind of normality in Honduras, so that the country’s democratic breakdown is not complete. Unless evidence emerges that the current authorities in Honduras are engaging in systematic harassment against opposition leaders or the press, evidence of which so far has been scant, there is no reason to deny diplomatic recognition to the winner of November’s poll. The electoral process was well underway before the coup, the electoral calendar has followed the law scrupulously, and the election is fully open to international observers.

Without a doubt, semi-authoritarian thugs like Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega will cry foul no matter the election result since their man in Tegucigalpa never returned to power. But for serious countries such as the United States and Brazil — countries that wound up accepting the results of the recent election in Iran — turning the winner of a free and fair election in Honduras into a pariah would not just be an act of immense hypocrisy but also of foolishness. It is a surefire way to prolong this crisis indefinitely into the future. The price of this would be paid, as usual, by the poorest of the poor in Honduras.

This is not to say that the world should spare Honduras’ post-election government a scolding. The current and future authorities in that country, and indeed the region, must understand that democratic free lunches are not available anymore. They must be told, either by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Arias, or Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now that he has also been dragged, via his embassy, into this mess) that there will be much democratic debt to repay if the world is to recognize election results and turn a blind eye to the coup. The next president will have to form an inclusive government and commit himself to a wide-ranging process of national dialogue, under international supervision, in which zelayista sectors and Zelaya himself must have a prominent role. If they want the elusive prize of legitimacy, there must be an explicit commitment by the two leading presidential candidates, former Vice President Elvin Santos, and former Congressman Porfirio Lobo, to observe both conditions.

Such a national dialogue process should lead to a thorough revision of the Honduran Constitution, a very peculiar document whose rigidities are at the root of the current crisis. It should also make room for the adoption of certain social reforms that could help reduce the massive inequities that render a populist temptation unavoidable in Honduras. In this scenario, Zelaya would not get back the presidency that is rightfully his, but he could end up achieving something very similar to the constituent assembly he tried to set in motion a few months ago, thus triggering this dispute.

This is just one possibility. And what’s needed most right now are ideas that expand the current range of negotiated solutions. To insist with blind stubbornness on the same options that have failed so far is to court disaster. Throughout this sorry episode, many commodities have been conspicuous by their scarcity, both inside and outside Honduras: Leadership, responsibility, and realism are the most obvious ones. That has to change fast if a tragedy is to be avoided. Because now, the scarcest commodity of all in Honduras is time.