Elections in small Central American countries rarely garner the kind of international attention that Honduras is receiving ahead of its November 24 presidential vote. Then again, this is no ordinary election. One of the frontrunners, Xiomara Castro, is the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in Latin America’s last coup in 2009. Her main opponent is Juan Orlando Hernández, a member of the Partido Nacional de Honduras (National Party), which has ruled the country since Zelaya was forced from power. The political grudge match is playing out in a tinderbox of a country: Honduras is home to the world’s highest murder rate and an embattled economy that has passions running high.
Castro's very candidacy represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes for Zelaya, who is the dominant influence behind his wife's newly founded Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE). Only four years ago, Zelaya was unceremoniously removed from office by the military after he moved to rewrite the country's constitution. Exiled until 2011, Zelaya saw his public support rebound dramatically on the back of widespread sympathy in the wake of the coup, which many Hondurans felt was unlawful.
In the years since, the ruling Partido Nacional has struggled to govern. President Porfirio Lobo’s focus on reconciliation in the wake of the coup kept him from confronting major economic and security challenges. In the void, transnational drug-trafficking organizations and domestic gangs have expanded their influence in Honduras unabated. Separately, the economy is under siege. Honduras ended 2012 with a budget deficit amounting to approximately 5 percent of GDP, its second highest in 10 years, while the country’s $5 billion foreign debt is equivalent to last year's entire budget. Starved of funds, the state has been unable to pay public workers, prompting thousands to take to the streets.
A new CID Gallup poll on the Honduran presidential election in November released on Tuesday shows Xiomara Castro—the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya—has a slight lead. The poll estimates that Castro, representing the leftist Partido Libertad y Refundacion (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE) would receive 29 percent of votes, followed closely by conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernández of the Partido Nacional de Honduras (National Party of Honduras) at 27 percent.
The election has focused primarily on citizen security and organized crime, issues of tremendous importance to a country which currently reports the world’s highest homicide rate. Castro’s party—a leftist coalition of unions, Indigenous and agrarian groups founded by Zelaya upon his return from a post-coup exile in 2011—has advocated community policing as a means to combat crime. In contrast, Hernández has proposed the creation of a “militarized police force” that would facilitate collaboration between police and military personnel.
Marco Cáceres, a Honduran political analyst, notes that the number of registered voters has increased considerably during each election cycle in the last decade—with the highest increase taking place between 2009 and 2013—but this has not translated into an equal bump in voter turnout. This election cycle may see a higher rate of voter participation due to the creation of new parties and frustration with the continued political and security crisis. According to Cáceres, the winning candidate is unlikely to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, threatening his or her presidential legitimacy and the country’s hopes for political stability.
Last week, the Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Commission) confirmed that the June 28, 2009 forced removal of former President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was a coup d’état. This is good news. Unfortunately, the report goes on to recommend a series of unnecessary constitutional reforms intended to allow for a legal process to remove a president from power.
Problem is: procedures for a special trial against high-ranking state officials are already clearly and unambiguously articulated and regulated in the current constitution. They just weren’t followed. Amending the beleaguered Honduran constitution again to address this phantom problem will not only fail to address the fundamental issue behind the events of June 28th, they will further confuse and weaken Honduran rule of law.
The Commission’s report, “To Prevent These Events from Happening Again” claims (1) that “the Honduran system for checks on the executive power is problematic and has substantial omissions, along with contradictory and dispersed legal rules, open to a lax interpretation;” (2) that “a basic modern constitutional principle is that a president may not be removed by a court decision, but only by a resolution of Congress with due process of law;” (3) that “the constitutional crisis of June 28, 2009 demonstrated that Honduras lacks an impeachment process;” and (4) that “to prevent these events (the coup) from happening again, the constitution should create this procedure.”.
But these assertions are simply not true. Article 313(2)(c) of the Honduran Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power “to adjudicate on the legal actions brought against the highest state officials and congressmen.” Articles 414 to 417 of the current Code of Criminal Procedure outline each of the steps that a criminal suit against the president must follow.
Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya signed an agreement yesterday in Cartagena, Colombia—brokered by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—that allows him to legally return to Honduras for the first time since being overthrown in a June 2009 coup d’état. This accord was conceived at a meeting early last month between Santos, Chávez and current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.
As part of the deal, Zelaya and his supporters will be allowed to participate in the Honduran political system. Corruption charges against Zelaya were dropped earlier this month. Lobo has pledged not to appeal them, meaning Zelaya can reenter Honduras without fear of prosecution Honduras is also expected to rejoin the Organization of American States as a full member, after being suspended one week after the coup took place.
At the Council of the Americas’ annual Washington Conference earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for this pact. Clinton noted that it will help reintegrate Honduras into the international community, calling this step “long overdue.”
The recent release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks will undoubtedly focus the greatest attention on U.S. policy in the Middle East, but it could also shake things up in Latin America. Already, one of the leaked diplomatic cables has revealed the United States embassy’s assessment of the Honduran coup as a conspiracy against President Zelaya by the Supreme Court, Congress and military.
The summary reads as follows:
The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution. There is equally no doubt from our perspective that Roberto Micheletti's assumption of power was illegitimate. Nevertheless, it is also evident that the constitution itself may be deficient in terms of providing clear procedures for dealing with alleged illegal acts by the President and resolving conflicts between the branches of government.
The cable then offers a detailed legal analysis of the coup. It acknowledges that there was reason for concern that Zelaya might have acted—or subsequently act—illegally, and that the Honduran constitution is plagued by ambiguity on matters relating to impeachment. But it finds that the lion’s share of accusations against Zelaya were either based on supposition or fabrication. The cable then concludes that the Congress lacked the authority to remove Zelaya, as his removal from power would require court proceedings and due process. His capture by the military and removal from the country was also completely unjustified.
This cable is both remarkable and it is not.
First, what is not really news: that Ambassador Hugo Llorens, the U.S. State Department and the Obama administration knew that what took place was a coup. Lest it go unsaid, the Obama administration categorically rejected Zelaya’s ouster all along. Hugo Llorens, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and all the other State Department officials involved in this matter were quite clear about the illegality of Zelaya’s ouster and the illegitimacyof Micheletti’s de facto government.
But this cable is still remarkable for its tone and its level of detail. By using the language of “conspiracy” and systematically debunking the arguments made by coup supporters, the cable makes the wrong of Zelaya’s removal abundantly clear. Today, the revelation of the Llorens cable is the top headline in Honduran newspapers, where it will hopefully advance public debate within the country about last year’s crisis.
The cable also undermines the arguments made in an influential Law Library of Congress Report, which argued that Zelaya’s removal from power (though not from the country) was legal. Conservatives in the United States used this report to claim that Zelaya’s ouster was really just Honduras’ version of a legal impeachment. Republicans in Congress kept pushing this line, using it as a tool to pressure the State Department and place holds on presidential appointments.
This pressure made the Honduras affair a headache for the Obama administration, which tried to wash its hands of the matter by prematurely stating it would recognize the November 2009 elections. Meanwhile, there was little pushback from within the Obama administration on the details of the events leading to the coup.
The leaked analysis by the embassy offers such a systematic rejection pro-coup case, but it was never advanced publicly. Had the administration made public such an assessment of the Honduran coup—and its implicit rejection of the LLC report—it would have provided a useful tool for refuting the spurious arguments made by conservatives. Instead, as summer 2009 drew to a close, the position that the coup was a defense of the rule of law gained traction inside the Beltway.
This dealt a blow to both the chances of Zelaya’s restitution and defenders of democracy in the Americas more generally.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.
More than a year after former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power in Tegucigalpa, Chile and Mexico on Saturday joined a growing number of Latin American countries to re-establish diplomatic ties with Honduras.
Although he did not offer a definitive timeline, Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno announced that Chile would soon resume full diplomatic relations with the Tegucigalpa government. Mexico, on the other hand, announced its decision to send its ambassador back to Honduras as early as next week. The decisions came in the aftermath of a 12-page report released last Thursday by the Organization of American States highlighting improving conditions in Honduras.
Other countries, including Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela are reluctant to re-establish relations with Honduras. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been supportive of reintegration and said in June, “President Lobo has done everything he said he would do,” “He has been very committed to pursuing a policy of reintegration.”
Recent Honduran press reports have honed in on a spate of partisan teacher firings in the country’s primary education program for remote, rural communities, PROHECO (Honduran Community Education Program, Programa Hondureño de Educación Comunitaria). Journalists have documented how President Lobo's Partido Nacional has replaced field staff with party activists, canceled teachers' contracts to install party supporters and undermined parent organizations' autonomy.
These reports suggest that the new ruling party has used PROHECO to divert resources and jobs to its followers, undermining the program's ability to realize its stated objectives. Just criticizing the Partido Nacional, however, ignores the broader problem with PROHECO, a program that reflects the pervasive clientelistic politics upon which both dominant Honduran political parties rely.
PROHECO emerged in the late 1990s as an alternative education model to expand education coverage in remote rural areas. PROHECO, like other community-managed school (also known as school-based management) programs in
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.
The Honduran government has officially announced the launch of a truth commission to investigate the military overthrow last year of then-President Manuel Zelaya. The commission includes Guatemalan former vice president Eduardo Stein, Canadian diplomat Michael Kergin, and Julieta Castellanos, head of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, and was a key campaign promise of current President Porfirio Lobo.
The government’s hope is that the commission will help restore the country's international standing and allow it to move beyond last year’s events. President Lobo says the commission, "exemplifies our resolve to heal wounds, learn from our mistakes and build together the future of this country."
There is support for the initiative at the UN and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, said in El Salvador today that Lobo's government had now taken the "necessary steps" to return to the international community. Critics contend the commissions findings will be biased and will not report abuses committed by government troops during and after the coup.
The commission will deliver its findings in 6 to 8 months, according to reports.
The Truth Commission mandated by last year’s Tegucigalpa / San José Accord now appears ready to get to work in Honduras, but controversy has already ensnared it. Supporters of last year’s coup are demanding that the government let sleeping dogs lie, while their opponents fear that the Commission will fail to deliver an honest account of the coup.
Meanwhile, the Commission already appears to be hedging on how much truth it will deliver, another troubling sign for a country where sunlight has never been in greater demand.
Signed on October 30, 2009, the Tegucigalpa / San José Accord once promised the end of Honduras’ political crisis. The Accord failed, however, because it did not stipulate a deadline for the congressional vote on Manuel Zelaya’s restitution, which ultimately led then-President Zelaya to pull his support. Meanwhile, de facto President Roberto Micheletti and key international players—including the U.S. government—clung to the Accord, claiming it was still in effect. Since President Porfirio Lobo took office in late January, he has maintained this line and worked tirelessly to restore international recognition to the Honduran government. The formation of the Truth Commission represents a crucial final step along this path, and the eight-month process stands ready to begin on May 4.
But Lobo’s government faces significant pressure from various sectors of Honduran society. Coup supporters have already said that they have no faith in the process, arguing that it is nothing more than a show for the international community. As has been true since last year’s coup, the Honduran Right continues to call for “national unity” and “consensus,” which in this case appears to mean a Truth Commission that does not rock the boat. Right-wing opponents have also lobbied to exclude human rights violations from the Commission’s purview, which have continued after Lobo took office.