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.Micheletti also sent a “big hug” to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after sending a stern warning, and then acceded to allow entry to the OAS delegation, though he now says that the OAS will have to wait for another week. Overall, Micheletti’s arbitrary, capricious behavior brings confidence to no one.
Zelaya seems equally unable to figure out which line to take. Like Micheletti, Zelaya drew harsh international criticism for what many deemed a reckless return. And now, after repression thwarted his attempts to mobilize masses of people in Tegucigalpa, he remains stuck in the Brazilian embassy. Some say that Zelaya was savvy to force Micheletti’s hand and reveal the current regime’s repressive nature. But Zelaya seems to have returned without a Plan B in the event that his initial popular surge failed. Ultimately, he seems to lack a broader strategy; he was so focused on returning to Honduras that he ignored all other considerations of how to resolve this crisis.
Zelaya has also waffled rhetorically. Last week, four pro-Micheletti presidential candidates visited him in the embassy. Zelaya first said this was an important step in the dialogue to resolve the crisis. Then his supporters lambasted him on the radio for hugging his ex-Vice President, Elvin Santos, who has supported the de facto government since the coup. Zelaya first tried to calm his supporters. Then, after they played back a recording of Santos’ words after the meeting, he cried foul and claimed that the whole affair was in bad faith.
Analysts of democratic transitions—following the work of Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead—have long noted that solutions require moderate leaders on both sides to extend their hands to one another and resist the extremists on their flanks. The same logic holds in the current crisis: Micheletti and Zelaya have thus far tried to cater to both camps, and they have failed miserably.
We are now left with the scary prospect of an increasingly volatile situation being handled by two political hacks. Instead of carefully seeking common ground through dialogue, Micheletti and Zelaya bear greater resemblance to bulls in a china shop. And the sad reality is that an entire country suffers as a result—Hondurans now lack the most basic constitutional rights, the economy is tanking and people here live with the deep anxiety of not knowing whether things might still get worse.
*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.