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Wikileaks and the Honduran Coup

November 29, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

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.

Tags: Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Wikileaks, Hugo Llorens

Anniversary of a Coup: Insecurity, Impunity and Isolation in Honduras

July 1, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

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.

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Tags: Organization of American States, Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Truth Commission, Porfirio Lobo, Central American Integration System

Honduras’ Truth Commission Controversy

April 23, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

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.

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Tags: Peru, Canada, Guatemala, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Hondura, President Porfirio Lobo, Dana Rohrabacher, Eduardo Stein

Central America’s Rule of Law: Guatemala Captures Portillo But Honduras Rewards Micheletti

January 27, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

For decades, impunity has reined in Central America. Dictatorial rule, coups, murder, and genocide have, for the most part, gone unpunished. This month, however, events in Guatemala have suggested a potential turning of the tide. In the last three weeks, Guatemalan authorities have solved the potentially destabilizing Rosenberg case and arrested ex-President Alfonso Portillo for money laundering $70 million when he was in power. Meanwhile, in Honduras, the rule of law appears as in jeopardy as ever, as the Congress has rewarded de facto President Roberto Micheletti and pledged amnesty for all those involved in ousting President Manuel Zelaya. When it comes to the rule of law, Honduras lags as far behind as ever.

Since the Peace Accords brought Guatemala’s 36-year civil war to an end in 1996, Guatemalan activists and international observers have demanded justice for the state-sponsored genocide in the 1980s. For the most part, however—as in most of Latin America—justice has not come. Moreover, since the late 1990s, crime has spiraled out of control, perceptions of corruption are high, and the legal system has proved incapable of apprehending and prosecuting both common criminals and thieving politicians. Pervasive impunity partially explains the horrific practice of lynchings that plagues Guatemala. But the failing of the rule of law in the region also contributes to Guatemalans’ disenchantment with democracy (desencanto democrático).

Not only have Guatemalan voters lost faith in democratic government’s ability to bring economic development and alleviate massive poverty, but vast swaths of the citizenry have come to believe that the laws simply do not apply to the powerful. As the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) has shown, perceptions of corruption and insecurity negatively affect democratic values in Guatemala. Compared with other Latin American countries, it is unsurprising that Guatemala ranks low in popular preference for democracy as a form of government.

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Tags: Central America, Honduras, Guatemala, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Álvaro Colom, Porfirio Lobo, Alfonso Portillo, Rule of Law, Impunity, CICIG, MINUGUA, Amnesty, Rodrigo Rosenberg

Honduran Congress Approves Withdrawal From ALBA

January 14, 2010

by AQ Online

On Tuesday, Honduras’ Congress approved a decree handed down in December by interim President Roberto Micheletti to end Honduras’ membership in the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas (ALBA), a regional organization started by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Presidential spokesman Rafael Pineda, in an apparent reference to Venezuela, explained that the decision to leave was taken because “some of the countries in the organization have not treated Honduras with the respect it deserves.” Pineda also cited Venezuelan threats during the initial stages of the Honduran coup last year to invade Honduras in support of deposed President Manuel Zelaya.

Honduras joined the regional organization on August 25, 2008, during a meeting between former President Zelaya and President Chávez. However, it was not until October 9 that the membership agreement was ratified by the Honduran Congress—then, ironically, presided over by Mr. Micheletti himself.

Tags: ALBA, Honduras coup, Roberto Micheletti, President Hugo Chavez

Beware of Triumphalism in the Honduras Crisis

October 30, 2009

by Eric Farnsworth

The news today from Tegucigalpa is good. After months of political impasse in Honduras, a delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly found a way to get representatives of both Micheletti and Zelaya to agree on a path that will provide a credible means forward to the elections scheduled for November 29.

This is important, because as I’ve noted many times, including in The Christian Science Monitor and other blog postings here, it is the elections that provide the surest, most appropriate escape valve for the crisis that has threatened to overwhelm Honduras and occupy U.S. policymakers who could usefully be focused on other matters. Steps to undermine or undercut the elections are counterproductive. At the same time, for the elections to be credible, they must be open, transparent and fair, and preparations must therefore begin in earnest immediately. Thus the timing of Shannon’s travel was important, and dictated by the need to get going purposefully on the elections.

Some analysts suggest that the trip should have been taken and heads banged earlier to get an agreement even before today. But that would not have allowed the Arias process—which the United States conceptualized and mid-wifed—to run its course. How ironic it would then have been for the United States to put itself in the position to be criticized, likely by the same analysts, for undercutting the multilateral Arias process and returning to the unilateralism they consistently decry. Fortunately, that did not occur.

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Tags: Honduras, Tom Shannon, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti

Against the Odds, Progress in Honduras?

October 15, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

Minor miracles can happen, after all. After beating El Salvador, Honduras qualified for the World Cup when the United States scored a goal to tie Costa Rica in the final minute. In seconds, Hondurans’ emotions flipped 180 degrees—from exasperation at thinking they had come up just short to jubilation at qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. From coffee country to the Caribbean coast, Hondurans celebrated with fireworks, flags, honking cars, and screams of joy.

As one announcer remarked, one can only hope that the country’s political leaders follow the national team’s cue and make this a great week for Honduras. And, against the odds, a political resolution may be on its way. In recent days, the Guaymuras Dialogue has brought relative calm to the political crisis. Progress has remained frustratingly slow, but each team seems to have brought a welcome dose of maturity to the negotiating table. The focus on the negotiators—none of them show-stealers—has provided a refreshing change-of-pace from Micheletti and Zelaya’s tired rants and reckless stunts.

On Wednesday afternoon, the negotiators temporarily withdrew to consult with Zelaya and Micheletti. Victor Meza, one of Zelaya’s three negotiators, claimed that negotiators had reached a provisional agreement on the final point of contention—Zelaya’s possible restitution—and simply had to get final approval from Zelaya and Micheletti. Meanwhile, Micheletti’s negotiators said they had completed 90 percent of the agenda and would likely conclude matters by the week’s end, but denied that they had reached such an agreement.

Now, rumors are swirling. Some say that all that remains is for negotiators to agree on the date of Zelaya’s return. Others say that both sides have agreed to renounce the presidency and hand over power to a third party. Declarations and denials abound; the truth remains elusive.

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Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, Roberto Micheletti, San Jose Accord

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.

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.

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

From Tegucigalpa. Xenophobia and Racism in the Honduran Crisis

October 7, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

The political crisis has brought out the worst of Honduras.  The media has already documented many of the country’s ills since June: the reliance on the military to address internal political problems and the sharp polarization with Cold War echoes as well as political violence, repression and censorship.  One nasty phenomenon, however, has slipped under the radar: the frightening nationalist sentiment, xenophobia and racism that have been on display since June 28—the day of the coup.  Hondurans on both sides of this crisis have continually failed to recognize that substantial domestic support exists for both Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, and that these domestic forces are willing and able to mobilize themselves.  They have proceeded by first defining “us”—the true Hondurans who “love their country”—and then using racial and national markers to identify a blameworthy “them.”

Since the coup, Hondurans have been crying for leadership from “people who really love their country.”  Honduran politicians, media pundits and radio-show callers have repeated this banal phrase ad nauseum.  They suggest that “true” Hondurans would never have gotten into this mess and that love of country is sufficient to ward off political crisis.  That both Micheletti and Zelaya supporters utter this phrase reveals the patent absurdity of such arguments.  People with widely divergent interests can all profess to “love their country.”  Democratic politics is about aggregating and balancing interests and developing representative institutions to mediate these interests and protect citizens’ rights; it is not about who can be the loudest cheerleader for the nation.

Unfortunately, these “love of country” statements are not simply vacuous.  In addition to being unhelpful, nationalist rhetoric since June 28 has gone hand-in-hand with troubling expressions of xenophobia and racism.

Xenophobia has plagued the rhetoric of both the Micheletti and the Zelaya camps.  On Micheletti’s side, condemnation of outside influences and a rejection of multilateralism has become commonplace after the international community’s condemnation of the coup.  This is bad news, but it’s not quite xenophobia.  Instead, xenophobia has reared its ugly head in the continuous references to “outside agitators”— Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Colombians (from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC)—stirring up the Zelaya supporters.  The Honduran Right claims that their country has been infiltrated by Leftist, Communist and Marxist (any Cold War adjective will do, actually) rabble-rousers from all of these nations.

These phantom foreigners have taken the blame for organizing violence and funding insurrection.  Some even blame them for the wave of pro-Zelaya graffiti that’s gone up throughout Tegucigalpa.  As one Micheletti supporter told me, “Hondurans have never put up graffiti like this.  It’s being done by people from those other countries.”  Meanwhile, first-hand experience at pro-Zelaya protests reveals that it’s primarily adolescent Hondurans putting up the graffiti.

Perhaps the nastiest case of such “othering” came when the de facto government stripped Catholic priest Father Andrés Tamayo of his citizenship.  Tamayo, a naturalized Honduran citizen born in El Salvador, has been an outspoken Zelaya supporter while the historically conservative church sided with Micheletti.  The response from the Right: he’s Salvadoran, he’s not one of us.

The contempt for certain sectors of the Latin American Left has both long-term and short-term causes.  Historically, Hondurans have always been relatively conservative for the region—the two dominant parties have been right-of-center, and leftist ideology never really took hold here.  Widespread distrust remains for the leftist politics of other Latin American countries.  The Right’s reaction to Zelaya’s alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the other Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) countries brought this into relief.

People may be right to condemn Chávez’ influence in Honduras and his bellicose rhetoric over these past few months.  But this condemnation has fed a bilious blame game, where “true Hondurans” respect the government, while “foreign meddlers” sow instability.  Those who use this language deny that Zelaya has substantial support in Honduras; instead of trying to understand and communicate with those on the other side, they simply deny their existence and blame it on foreigners.

Zelaya’s supporters are equally guilty of xenophobia and racism, though with different targets.  Their first targets are Honduran Arabs, whom they identify as a crucial part of the Honduran “oligarchy,” owning major businesses and pro-Micheletti media outlets.  Merchants of Arab origin have long occupied a place in Honduras; ironically, in the early- and mid-twentieth century they played a critical role in challenging the dominance of the United Fruit Company and even supporting labor organizing.  As Dario Euraque’s work has shown, this sector was critical in opposing caudillo rule and modernizing the brutal enclave economy, even if these businessmen were primarily driven by self-interest to improve conditions for capital.  But few people here remember (or ever knew) this part of the country’s history.  Instead, Zelaya supporters have taken to blanket condemnations of the Arabs that, as the argument goes, control this country’s economy and polity.  Never mind that these people are Honduran citizens whose families have been in Honduras for generations; their last names mark them as enemies of the nation.

Ironically, Zelaya supporters have unleashed equally vigorous rhetorical attacks against Israelis and Jews.  This was initially motivated by Israel’s recognition of the Micheletti government (the only other country to do so was Taiwan).  Things turned ugly, however, when Zelaya and his supporters started blaming Israeli commandos for chemical attacks on the Brazilian embassy.  And they reached their apogee when a pro-Zelaya commentator, David Romero, shamefully denounced Israelis and Jews as “people who damage the country” and wondered aloud why the world had not “allowed Hitler to complete his historic mission.”

The U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, issued a public condemnation of this unconscionable diatribe, but no one has taken on the deeper issue: the ease with which Hondurans have reached for both foreigners and domestic “others” as the cause of the crisis.   The Latin American Public Opinion Project recently noted the low levels of political tolerance—namely, the low respect for the rights of those with unpopular or contrary views—among Honduran citizens.  In the last few months, however, Hondurans have displayed a different type of intolerance—this time for those of different nationalities, faiths and skin colors.  This second type of intolerance is always deplorable, but in this crisis it has also had the unfortunate effect of displacing blame and curtailing honest debate about the causes of this crisis and the sharp polarization within Honduran society.

As Honduras hopefully moves toward resolving this crisis, leaders on both sides should condemn the xenophobic rhetoric coming from within their ranks.  Both sides must own up to the fact that substantial sectors of Honduran citizens—all of whom “love their country”—support both Zelaya and Micheletti.  And when the dust settles, Honduras’ new leadership must also reflect on the roots of—and potential remedies for—the troubling xenophobic and racist sentiments that this crisis has brought to the fore.

*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: Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Xenophobia

From Tegucigalpa. Honduran Leaders Fumble, Crisis Worsens

October 1, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

Events in Honduras have taken a turn for the worse in the past ten days, and, sadly, there have been no capable leaders from whom Hondurans can expect progress.   Roberto Micheletti and Manuel Zelaya have shown themselves to be political novices without the maturity and intellect to guide this country out of this crisis.

De facto President Roberto Micheletti can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he wants to be a good democrat or a good autocrat.  First, last week, Micheletti let the military and police run amok in the capital.  The result: hundreds of people detained and injured and as many as 10 killed.  Then, on Sunday, Micheletti declared a state of exception in the country, suspending for up to 45 days (with the possibility of renewal) the inviolability of personal freedom, freedom of assembly, free speech, freedom of movement, and due process.  He then proceeded to raid and shut down the two national television and radio outlets that supported Zelaya.  Micheletti’s government also refused to allow entry to an Organization of American States (OAS) delegation to enter the country and demanded that Brazil define Zelaya’s status as visitor.

So far, good autocrat, right?  But Micheletti hasn’t even been able to get that part right.  Less than one day after declaring the state of exception, Micheletti turned on his heels, apologized to Hondurans and said he would try to lift certain provisions this week.  Why?  First, he received heavy international criticism.  As a State Department spokesman lamented, “I think it's time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel. With every action they keep on making the hole deeper.” Second, Honduran congressmen and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal informed Micheletti that the state of exception would leave only two weeks for free campaigning before the scheduled elections, for which they desperately want international legitimacy.  Shockingly, it seems that Micheletti—Honduras’ loudest election cheerleader—had not even considered this.

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Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, Roberto Micheletti, media censorhip

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