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Soccer and the Political Crisis in Honduras

October 12, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

Hondurans had high hopes for two things last week: qualifying for the World Cup and settling the political crisis.  Unfortunately for the catrachos (Hondurans), they came up short in both.  And the country’s two failures mirrored one another.

High hopes dominated Honduras in the run-up to Saturday’s World Cup qualifying match against the United StatesBut after coming out hot and scoring first, Honduras surrendered three straight goals.  The team’s captain then sealed its fate when he missed a penalty kick to tie the game with four minutes remaining.  At the end of the night, fans were left incredulous. One television announcer bemoaned the Honduran players’ lack of “emotional equilibrium,” while another commentator pleaded with viewers not to shoot their guns in the air in despair.  Bullets that go up also come down, he explained, without the slightest trace of irony.

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Honduras’ loss shared various elements with the latest round of political negotiations, the Guaymuras Dialogue: high expectations, unstable leadership and the specter of more violence.

First, high expectations.  Last week, the mainstream press (which supports Roberto Micheletti) and the country’s politicians made the end of the political crisis appear all but guaranteed.  Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—this became the welcome mantra after weeks of violence.  But, as in soccer, political expectations can mask reality.

In this case, the sad truth was that neither Roberto Micheletti nor Manuel Zelaya had changed his position on the two crucial issues in this crisis: Zelaya’s possible restitution and the question of amnesty.  Zelaya and the international community continue to insist on restitution, while Micheletti has lost his voice with daily declarations that he is powerless before the country’s other political institutions, all of which want Zelaya in jail or in exile.  Micheletti’s recent offer to consider Zelaya’s return after the elections belied his pleas of impotence, but he continues to refuse to entertain either pre-election restitution or amnesty.

Unsurprisingly, the two sides suspended talks until Tuesday after dealing with the principal issues except for these two critical points.  In terms of negotiating strategy, this agenda makes sense: start small, build trust and get both sides so invested in the process that they will be less likely to turn their backs on the talks.  But it remains risky. The clock continues to tick and another failed round of negotiations could prove catastrophic.

That brings us to unstable leadership.  Already, Zelaya has threatened to withdraw his support for upcoming elections if a resolution is not reached by October 15.  It is hard to see what this move (presumably taken to counter Micheletti’s stalling) will accomplish, except potentially pushing Honduras closer to the brink.  And then there’s the anti-semitism from Zelaya’s side, which the international press finally picked up on this week (for more on xenophobia and racism on both sides of this crisis, see my October 7 post).

Meanwhile, Micheletti also made a fool of himself this week.  As the Organization of American States (OAS) countries’ leaders came to town, his smile was irrepressible.  Then, when these delegates reiterated their support for Zelaya’s restitution—the same position they have held since June 28—he nearly broke down in exasperation at a press conference.  It was if, by repeating “dialogue” over and over earlier this week, he had convinced himself that suddenly the world was going to side with him.  But not even $400,000 spent on lobbying in Washington could achieve that.  And, once again, observers are left scratching their heads at a crisis in which both leaders have repeatedly shown their lack of tact and composure.

The unpredictability on both sides of this crisis raises a final point: the specter of violence.  Last week, Micheletti lifted the State of Exception that propagated detentions, state violence and extreme censorship.  (The two targeted media outlets remain off-the-air.  Last week, Micheletti issued a separate decree, condemned by Amnesty International and others, restricting press freedom.)  Now, if this round of negotiations fails and Zelaya pulls his support for elections, it is not hard to imagine the Resistencia (resistance) trying to take to the streets in numbers again, with hard-liners pushing ever more vigorously for a constituent assembly.  Another round of repression could then follow, with tragic consequences.  What comes after that would be anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, Hondurans are left hoping against hope that the two sides will find common ground this week.  Back on the soccer field, these same Hondurans will also be praying for a victory against El Salvador coupled with a Costa Rican loss—the country’s last chance to guarantee qualifying for the World Cup.

Last week, Honduras’ political failures mirrored the country’s shortcomings on the field. Barring a small miracle, this week may not turn out any better.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. 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.

Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, Roberto Micheletti, Honduras negotiations, U.S.-Honduras soccer

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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