Honduras: Solution or Stall?
The Honduran crisis may soon be over. Maybe. The leader of the coup government, Roberto Micheletti, agreed to a nine-point plan to end the country's political impasse, brokered by Thomas Shannon, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Barack Obama's yet-to-be-confirmed ambassador to Brazil. The deal would return Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president deposed in a military coup four months ago, to office; in exchange, the international community will end Honduras' diplomatic isolation and recognize upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for November 29.
Hardliners in the coup government, however, see a loophole in the accords, which gives the Honduran National Congress the power to approve or reject Zelaya's return. And no sooner was the ink dry on the accord when a top Micheletti advisor, Marcia Facusse de Villeda, told Bloomberg News that "Zelaya won't be restored." In a barefaced admission that the coup government was trying to buy time, Facusse said that "just by signing this agreement we already have the recognition of the international community for the elections." Another Micheletti aide, Arturo Corrales, said that since the congress is not in session, no vote on the agreement could be scheduled until "after the elections."
But such a calculated reading of the agreement will not play well with most countries, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union, which have repeatedly called for restoration of Zelaya. Brazil--whose Tegucigalpa embassy has given Zelaya shelter since his dramatic surprise return to Honduras over a month ago--applauded Shannon's deal, yet made it clear Zelaya had to be reinstated. And in Honduras, the National Party, whose candidate is expected to win next month's vote, wants this crisis to be over. Its members in Congress may join with Liberal Party deputies loyal to Zelaya to approve the deal.
The accord leaves unresolved the issue of whether the widespread human rights violations that have taken place since the coup will be investigated and prosecuted, only vaguely rejecting an amnesty for "political crimes" and calling for the establishment of a truth commission. More than a dozen Zelaya supporters have been executed over the last four months. Security forces have illegally detained nearly 10,000 people; police and soldiers have beaten protesters and gang-raped women. And the very idea of a negotiated solution to the crisis grants legitimacy to those provoked it.
Still, if Zelaya were to be restored to the presidency, even just symbolically, to preside over the November elections and supervise a transfer of power to its winner, it would represent a significant victory for progressive forces in the hemisphere. Here's why:
1. The attempt by Micheletti and his backers--both in and out of Honduras--to justify the overthrow of Zelaya by claiming it was a constitutional transfer of power will have definitively failed. If this justification was allowed to go unchallenged, it would have set a dangerous precedent for the rest of Latin America.
2. Efforts to rally support for the coup under the banner of anti-leftism, or anti-Chavismo--much the way anti-communism served to unite conservatives during the Cold War--will likewise have failed.
3. It will confirm the political influence--and unity--of Latin America's progressive governments, particularly Brazil and Venezuela, which have taken the lead in demanding that the coup not stand--a position that aligned them with much of the rest of the world.
4. It will be an important push back for Republicans like South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and Otto Reich, who tried to use the crisis to push for a more hardline US policy against the left in Latin America. It is DeMint who has put the hold on Shannon's confirmation, as well as on the confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's pick for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
5. It will hopefully help the Obama administration realize that in many Latin American countries, there is no alternative to working with the left. In Honduras, the violence of the coup government, as well as the fact that the extended crisis smoked out its less than savory supporters, like Reich, awoke not too pleasant memories of the Cold War. Reich recently penned an essay urging Obama to replicate Ronald Reagan's successful Latin American policy, which the Iran-Contra alum believed paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many, however, remember too well Reagan's patronage of death squads and torturers. And reports that Honduran planters were importing Colombian paramilitaries to protect their interests were not helping defenders of the coup make their case. As protests continued, it became clear to all who paid attention that it was the good guys - trade unionists, peasants, Native Americans, environmentalists, feminists, gay and lesbian activists, and progressive priests - who were demanding the return of Zelaya.
6. Zelaya's return would be a huge boost for those good guys, who are largely responsible for the inability of the coup government to consolidate its rule. Against all expectations, they have defied tear gas, batons, bullets, and curfews, and engaged in creative and heroic acts of resistance, growing stronger and more unified than they were before the coup four months ago. They will engage with the new government from a position of strength, while the elites who have long ruled Honduras will be fractured and chastised.
The accords brokered by Shannon force Zelaya to renounce any attempt to convene a constitutional convention, yet the National Front against the Coup - the umbrella group that has coordinated opposition to Micheletti - has made it clear that that demand is "non-negotiable" and that it would continue to push for it, no matter who is president.
It was of course fear of a constituent assembly that provoked the coup in the first place, and it is an irony probably not lost on those who executed it that a large majority of Hondurans, according to a recent poll, now think that such an assembly would be the best way to solve the country's political crisis.
The last thing Micheletti and his supporters want to see is Mel Zelaya, with his white cowboy hat and wide smile, addressing a large crowd filling the streets of Tegucigalpa celebrating his reinstallation, building momentum for fights to come. And this is why Shannon's deal is anything but done.
Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, is the author, most recently, of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan). He serves on the editorial committee of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).