One year ago this week, the Honduran military expelled President Manuel Zelaya from the country. The coup immediately prompted domestic tumult and international condemnation. With elections in November, however, the Honduran political establishment and the Obama administration banked on the country moving beyond the coup domestically and normalizing relations with the world. But theirs were rose-colored glasses; a coup’s effects are not so easily undone.
Honduras is now struggling with the long-term damage that coups inflict on the rule of law and the enduring costs of international isolation. Even after de facto President Roberto Micheletti ceded power to Porfirio Lobo following an election, insecurity and impunity reign domestically, and most of Latin America continues to isolate the country. The battle for international legitimacy remains President Lobo’s principal concern, and has also brought issues onto the domestic agenda that put Lobo at loggerheads with powerful supporters of last year’s coup.
Many on the Right claim that, by ousting Zelaya, the political establishment was responding legitimately to an over-reaching president. And, indeed, in the first half of 2009, Zelaya flouted court rulings that deemed unconstitutional a referendum that would pave the way for a constituent assembly. At one stage, Zelaya and his supporters seized referendum ballots held by the military under Supreme Electoral Tribunal orders.
But one simply cannot claim to defend the rule of law while trampling certain critical protections that the state owes all its citizens, such as due process and protection from forced expulsion. Roberto Micheletti and other coup supporters disregarded this lesson, and Honduras continues to pay the price for their actions.
By presiding over a government guilty of widespread human rights abuses and refusing to step down, Micheletti fixed the international community against Honduras. Now, even elections have proven insufficient to restore the world’s recognition.
President Porfirio Lobo came to power with an avowed agenda of national reconciliation; he supported political amnesty, appointed his former electoral opponents as ministers, provided Zelaya safe passage out of Honduras, and appointed a Truth Commission. But, while Lobo managed to muster acceptance from the United States, Europe and other key world players, most of Latin America remains fixed against recognizing the Honduran government.
This includes not only leftist Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, but also moderate and even right-of center players like Brazil and Mexico. Lobo’s exclusion from recent summits in Madrid and Lima highlighted this divide, and Lobo continues to try to forge ahead in regaining OAS (Organization of American States) and SICA (Central American Integration System) recognition. Without hemispheric recognition, Honduras will continue to confront obstacles on priority issues like trade, aid and investment.
Meanwhile, Hondurans confront grave threats to human security. Citizens face shocking crime levels (over 50 murders per 100,000 inhabitants—double the average in the Americas and over five times the European average), while drug trafficking rings threaten the very integrity of the state.
Political violence after the coup has exacerbated the situation. Even after the elections, a spate of murders of journalists has occurred. As with the attacks and deaths of pro-Zelaya activists following the coup, President Lobo’s government has not yet resolved these cases. Thus far, impunity reigns.
Moreover, the Supreme Court recently refused to re-instate four judges dismissed for their anti-coup position. An extended hunger strike and even Lobo’s criticism have thus far proven insufficient to convince the Court to overturn this decision.
Put simply, the rule of law and the protection of basic freedoms—in question well before 2009, but dramatically diminished by the coup—remain seriously jeopardized even after the post-coup election.
In addition to the coup’s political, economic, and human tragedy in Honduras, the coup also appears to be backfiring in a more lasting way; the coupsters now face the prospect of the new, conservative government—in pursuit of international recognition—accepting certain measures that they vehemently oppose.
At first, Lobo has spent much time in recent months negotiating Zelaya’s potential return to the country. First, rumors swirled around Tegucigalpa of Zelaya’s possible return, with immunity, as a member of the Central American Parliament. More recently, Lobo has offered to personally accompany Zelaya in his return and provide legal safeguards to ensure that he remains free. Zelaya has declined, expressing distrust that Lobo can protect him.
Second, Lobo has publicly acknowledged that Zelaya’s ouster constituted a coup and promoted the Truth Commission as the fulfilling of the failed San José–Tegucigalpa accord. While Zelaya supporters and human rights advocates criticize the Truth Commission’s limited mandate and Zelaya has called for supporters not to provide the Commission with information, coup supporters and much of Lobo’s base pre-emptively reject the Commission as an unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, performance for the international community.
Third, Lobo has openly discussed the possibility of a referendum for a constituent assembly, the critical piece of Zelaya’s actions that triggered the coupsters’ response. Chances are low that Lobo would seriously entertain such a referendum, but his willingness to even talk about the issue raises the hackles of coup supporters.
Of course, the coupsters still hold a great deal of power in this small, radically unequal country. President Lobo himself has sounded the alarm over an alleged coup plot to overthrow him. But Lobo’s actions have shown an even greater concern with persistent international isolation.
In the months to come, the United States will continue to encourage contrition from Lobo, while the Latin American holdouts will keep exploiting their political leverage over Honduras. To gain international recognition, Lobo will have to persist in making concessions that coup supporters will see as nothing less than betrayal.
For Zelaya supporters, the measures Lobo takes—especially if there were a constituent assembly—could provide sweet vindication for their struggles. But, for political change in Honduras to become anything more than cosmetic, the Left—historically weak and inchoate—will have to unify as never before to resist persistent efforts to whitewash last year’s coup. Honduran’s conservative history is not on their side, but much of Latin America is.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.