Shadow Government

Honduras: Winners and Losers

By José R. Cárdenas

The walls may be closing in on former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's tin foil-lined bunker in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, but until his status is determined the Honduran people cannot begin to move beyond the crisis that has roiled their country for the past six months. (Full disclosure: I helped a Honduran business delegation travel to Washington in July 2009 to brief U.S. policymakers on the crisis there.)

Still, with a successful election having taken place on Nov. 29 for Zelaya's duly elected successor as president -- won by Porfirio Lobo of the opposition National Party -- and with the Honduras Congress voting 111-14 to deny Zelaya's temporary return to office, it is not too early to identify political winners and losers as Honduras begins to put its political and economic house back in order.

The Winners:

The Honduran People. Public opinion polls consistently showed that the Honduran people overwhelmingly opposed the return of Manuel Zelaya to office. Facing regional ostracism and sanctions, their stand spoke to the depth of their fears of Zelaya's return and the instability he would bring in his wake. It also said infinitely more than a thousand speeches from foreign capitals lecturing them that they had to restore their rogue president back to office. Still, Honduran elites ought to take the past year as a wake-up call that a sizable portion of the population feels alienated from current political and economic arrangements and wants (and deserves) something better. To pretend it doesn't exist only invites more crises. The Lobo administration must make national reconciliation his first priority.

Latin American Electorates. Finally, somewhere in the region Chavismo was stopped dead in its tracks.  No longer is it inevitable that a neo-populist rides a wave of public disaffection into office and then systematically begins to erode democratic institutions until all national power is vested in him. While the Left is in full-throated dudgeon about the supposed blow to democracy in Honduras, they have the situation exactly backwards. The threat to democracy in Honduras was not the Supreme Court or the legislature, it was Manuel Zelaya, who tried to bend (and break) those institutions to his will.  Consolidation of democratic institutions and the opening up of economies continue to be the region's greatest challenges, but neo-populist snake oil is no remedy. There are alternatives, as the Honduran people demonstrated.

The Losers:

U.S.-Honduran Relations. The historically close relationship has been dealt a serious blow by the Obama administration's zig-zag diplomatic approach to the crisis (see below). Honduras is a signatory to the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), with two-thirds of its exports going to the U.S, while 50 percent of imports are U.S. goods. In addition, remittances from Hondurans in the U.S. amount to almost $3 billion, or one-fifth of GDP. Many Hondurans were stunned by the Obama Administration's opposition to Zelaya's deposing and failure to appreciate his increasingly erratic and confrontational rule. The historical solidarity wasn't there this time, and mutual trust has been damaged. With good faith on both sides, however, traditional close relations can be restored over the long run, beginning first with the restoration of suspended U.S. assistance.

Hugo Chavez. Who would have thought that Honduras would be a bridge too far for the Venezuelan strongman? Certainly not Chavez. After a succession of easy neo-populist electoral victories in the region, he could be forgiven for truly believing in a Bolivarian reunification of the continent under his enlightened leadership. His Bolivarian project has suffered its first defeat, and the danger is how he will respond. He's got the resources and Fidel Castro the subversive apparatus. Honduras is not out of the woods yet, but Chavismo is suddenly looking vulnerable.

Brazil. Brazil aspires to be a global leader deserving of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But it stumbled badly on Honduras. It moved quickly to denounce the removal of Zelaya and led the regional charge for Honduras's isolation, but in the end failed to influence the course of events. More egregious, however, was allowing the fugitive Zelaya to re-enter the country and set up shop in its embassy in Tegucigalpa, inflaming an already dangerous situation. Which raises the question, if Brazil can't even responsibly manage a crisis in tiny Honduras, how does it propose to influence Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

The Organization of American States. The OAS should have been the appropriate vehicle to mediate the crisis, but Secretary General José Miguel Insulza's rash and intemperate response to Zelaya's removal (he tried to out-Chavez Chavez) quickly sidelined the organization as an honest broker. The Obama administration had to enlist Costa Rican President Arias to fulfill the role.  Career OAS officials were mortified by Insulza's behavior, and it's not likely he's going to recover his credibility anytime soon. It's no wonder the rumors are the administration will not support the Chilean Socialist for a second term.

A Wash:

The Obama Administration. The Obama administration wound up in the right place by accepting the outcome of the Nov. 29 election and allowing Honduran institutions to rule on Zelaya's return, but that only came after it reversed its ill-considered earlier position to align itself with Hugo Chavez in demanding Zelaya's unconditional return to power and threatening to not recognize the election. That flip-flop won the praise of the Washington Post, which performed its own artful back flip by endorsing both policy approaches of the administration -- all the while excoriating Congressional Republicans who, from Day One, maintained Zelaya's illegal conduct forfeited his right to finish his term and supported the November election as a way out of the crisis.

Claudia BARRIENTOS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

When it comes to Honduras, it's time to leave the Zelaya debacle in the past

By David J. Kramer

(Editors' Note: David J. Kramer headed the International Republican Institute's election observer delegation to Honduras. He writes here in a personal capacity.) 

Last week was a very good week for the people of Honduras. On Sunday Nov. 29, Hondurans went to the polls to choose their next president in an election that passed the "free and fair" test of observers on the ground (myself included). Three days later on Dec. 2, Honduran legislators rejected a return to the past, defeating a motion to restore the ousted and disgraced leader, Manuel Zelaya, for the remaining two months of his term.

Hondurans are clearly looking to the future -- the question is whether the international community, including the United States, will do the same. 

Earlier this week the mood in Tegucigalpa, the capital, was celebratory. The sight of many young Hondurans participating in the political process bodes well for the country's future. Despite exaggerated reports of widespread violence and bombings in the days leading up to election day, the voting went off peacefully, with few problems save for some late openings of polling stations and technical glitches for phoning in results to the central election commission. The campaign was not perfect, with short-term emergency measures that briefly limited political space, but these measures were lifted in enough time to allow for a lively competition for voters' support. 

The international group of observers with whom I worked heard few complaints before, during, and after the vote. On the contrary, many Hondurans voiced sincere appreciation for our willingness to monitor the election and satisfaction that their country was putting the Zelaya controversy in the past.

The Nov. 29 election was scheduled last year, long before the summer's commotion involving Zelaya. Primary elections in November 2008 produced the two main party candidates, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo and Elvin Santos. Lobo, head of the National Party, won in a landslide by some 15 percent of the vote, a victory acknowledged by Santos, his main challenger from the Liberal Party. Zelaya is also from the Liberal Party, and the fact that Santos decided to participate in the election is a sign that even within his own party, Zelaya is a spent force.

Zelaya's calls for Hondurans to stay away from the polls were largely ignored. And Honduran legislators put the final nail in his coffin when they upheld his June removal from office, carried out by the military upon orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, because Zelaya was engaging in unconstitutional efforts to extend his stay in power. Despite the legal basis for his removal (the military's decision to deport him to Costa Rica could have been handled better), the international community, the Obama administration included, quickly condemned these developments and suspended assistance, calling for Zelaya's return to power.

Whereas the majority of Hondurans saw the election as a proper way forward, the Organization of American States (OAS) and countries such as Brazil and Venezuela chose to boycott it out of allegiance to Zelaya.  Recognizing the elections, they maintained, would legitimize what they deemed to have been a coup d'etat. 

After condemning what it called "a coup" against Zelaya in the summer and trying to iron out a compromise agreement that would return him to office, the Obama administration eventually realized that the election would take place whether Washington approved or not. Accordingly, the State Department requested the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to assess the election process.  At the same time, Department officials continued to call for Zelaya's restoration so that he could finish out his term in office, but Honduras's National Congress rebuffed the U.S. administration's entreaties by voting against reinstating Zelaya.

The day after the election, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, in a rambling press briefing, refused to recognize the results of the elections and called for Zelaya to be returned to power. Appearing before the press again the day after the Honduran Congress rejected that possibility, Valenzuela voiced disappointment with the decision, but signaled that the United States was finally getting the message: Hondurans were looking forward, not to the recent past. 

The United States and other countries, as well as the OAS, should lift their suspensions of assistance to Honduras, the poorest country in Central America, and recognize that the citizens of that country followed a democratic process in choosing a new president. The Honduran Congress also took its responsibility seriously in voting on whether to reinstate Zelaya. Those who boycotted the Nov. 29 election missed an impressive display of civic duty by Hondurans determined to exercise their democratic rights. Now, it is time the international community united behind the people of Honduras and their new leaders.