Last week, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa publicly acknowledged that the expulsion of President Manuel Zelaya from the country on June 28, 2009, constituted a coup. This was a startling admission from a man who won last year’s presidential election in a climate rife with fear, repression and censorship. Lobo’s belated recognition of the coup suggests that the pressure to normalize relations with the international community may be getting to him. He has now reversed his earlier position, and in doing so, risked putting himself at odds with allies throughout the Honduran political establishment.
Porfirio Lobo had walked a veritable tightrope on his way to assuming the presidency in January. He was the front-runner well before the June 2009 coup, and the fissure within the Partido Liberal that culminated in the coup all but assured him and his Partido Nacional an electoral victory. There was never any question that Lobo would participate in the elections. But Lobo did not want to appear too close to Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president at the time, for fear of alienating the many Hondurans opposed to Micheletti or the international community that he would have to engage as president.
Days after Zelaya’s expulsion, Lobo explicitly denied that a coup had taken place. Lobo then resorted to dodging the question, blaming Zelaya for provoking the crisis while offering mild critiques of the Micheletti government. By never taking a position against Zelaya’s illegal ouster and Micheletti’s installation as president, Lobo continued to effectively condone the coup. Once in power, Lobo declared amnesty for those involved and rewarded coup supporters. Most notably, General Romeo Vásquez, head of the armed forces that expelled Zelaya, became the head of Hondutel, the national telephone company.
But what are the consequences of Lobo’s public recognition that the events of June 28, 2009, were in fact a coup? If nothing else, it will likely raise concern among the leaders of both dominant parties, the Supreme Court, the armed forces, and the various other state institutions and political players who defended Zelaya’s ouster as a “constitutional succession.” And, with the recent launch of the controversial Truth Commission, those responsible for the coup may fear that Lobo’s pronouncement will pave the way for a more critical and threatening report.
Thus, uttering the simple words “it was a coup,” Lobo has risked alienating domestic political allies and sparking further attacks from the Honduran Right against the Truth Commission.
And, while Lobo's admission may bring some vindication to those who have opposed the coup all along, it also raises serious questions about his integrity. Unless he argues that he only recently realized that Honduras was victim to a coup, Lobo will have demonstrated that he has been deceived the Honduran people for electoral advantage. Had candidate Lobo declared that a coup had taken place before the November election, he would have put himself at odds with his entire party. This would have put his candidacy in jeopardy. Instead, Lobo reaped the spoils of the political crisis and the implosion of the Partido Liberal. Lobo’s prize for his deception: an electoral landslide for the Partido Nacional.
Why then, would Lobo now acknowledge the coup?
Protestors in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Demand Zelaya's Return. Photograph by Daniel Altschuler
The context of his statement is crucial. Lobo’s coup admission took place in Spain, where he had excused himself from a Europe-Latin America summit that various Latin American countries had threatened to boycott if he attended. This trip yet again revealed the strong, continued opposition to Lobo’s attempts to win international recognition, complicating Honduras’ re-entry into regional and international bodies, principally the Organization of American States (OAS).
Soon after assuming power, Lobo basked in the recognition from the United States, the European Union and most of Central America, but many Latin American countries—most importantly, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela—continue to reject Lobo’s rule as illegitimate. Now, it seems, Lobo believes his best bet is to try to turn up the conciliatory tone. In recent months, Lobo has begun this effort by promoting the newly-installed Truth Commission as the fulfillment of the San José–Tegucigalpa Accord and the last crucial step to regain international recognition.
Lobo’s coup admission is most likely just a part of his broader international strategy. By using the same terms as his international opponents to describe last year’s crisis, Lobo may hope to nudge them closer to normalizing relations. This will likely not work with vehement critics like Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, but it could be part of a strategy to get more moderate detractors like Brazil to eventually drop their opposition.
This does not mean that the Truth Commission will uncover the truth about the coup and the guilt of its plotters. Instead, as the Center for Justice and International Law has argued, serious concerns remain about whether the Truth Commission’s mandate and current set-up will ensure a full rendering of the truth, including the litany of human rights abuses perpetrated by state forces after the coup.
Moreover, though Lobos admission makes right-wing denials of the coup even less tenable, it remains difficult to foresee much change from Micheletti's ardent supporters within Honduras, including most of the pre- and post-election Congress and the Supreme Court. Nor have the country's three principal newspapers (all of which openly supported the coup, unlike the more neutral newspaper, Tiempo) mentioned Lobo’s recent admission, increasing the odds that the country will lose this opportunity for political debate.
Meanwhile, in the United States, vocal conservatives like Senator Jim DeMint, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, James Baker, Otto Reich, and Mary O’Grady have tried to sell the “constitutional succession” argument since Zelaya’s ouster. But, even with Lobo’s admission, they will likely remain stuck behind ideological blinders, arguing that Honduras has defended its democracy against the alleged imposition of chavismo.
Lobo’s surprise admission, then, will not likely trigger significant changes in how domestic and international power players view last year’s crisis. And, while observers may hope that Lobo’s statement emboldens the Truth Commission to repudiate last year’s coup and denounce its perpetrators, this outcome, too, remains far from guaranteed. For now, despite Lobo’s radical reversal, uncertainty will continue to prevail in Honduras.