Three months before Honduras’ scheduled elections, tensions remain high in Tegucigalpa. Walls and campaign propaganda are covered with pro-Zelaya graffiti; explosives have destroyed several fast food establishments and targeted certain media outlets; and a bomb scare took place near the airport this week. The military remains positioned at strategic locations in the city, closing streets without prior notice. While most people’s lives have returned to relative normalcy, groups supporting President Manuel Zelaya and de facto President Roberto Micheletti take to the streets daily. Schools remain closed from Monday through Wednesday each week, as the teachers unions have allied with other organizations to confront the de facto government.
Despite these disruptions to daily life, leaders of both major parties support the de facto government, and no governmental institution supports Zelaya’s return. In Tegucigalpa, most people seem to think that Zelaya’s return is impossible and that elections in November are the only way to end this relajo—the mess that has consumed the country since the end of June.
But the elections may not resolve this crisis. On the one hand, supporters of Micheletti’s government note that the elections were organized before the coup—with the candidates, chief among them Elvin Santos (Liberal Party, victor in last year’s primary against Micheletti) and Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (National Party, loser by a slim margin to Zelaya in 2005)—already determined. They add that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal remains independent of the Executive, so the elections will still be free and fair. On the other hand, the Organization of American States (OAS) will likely vote this week—after further sanctions from the United States and Mexico, among others—to declare that the elections will be illegitimate unless they are preceded by Zelaya’s return. The OAS position is both complex and simple. The situation is complex because the elections were already scheduled and are not necessarily tied to the current imbroglio, especially since both major parties support Micheletti’s government and neither Zelaya nor Micheletti will be a candidate. And, as Costa Rican President Oscar Arias himself noted last week—while insisting on Zelaya’s restitution—the first elections in Latin American democratic transitions were held under military control and still deemed legitimate by the international community.
Despite this potential justification for accepting the elections, governments in the Americas seem intent on defending a straight-forward principle. For these countries, so many of which experienced devastating military coups, it remains important to publicly proclaim that military intervention—even if the military does not currently hold the reins of power, as it did after previous Honduran coups—is simply unacceptable. Latin America fought a long battle in the 1980s and 1990s to curb military power. The region now wishes to send a strong message that military intervention in domestic politics in this part of the world will never be legitimate.
The OAS countries have also rejected the upcoming elections because this is one of the only remaining modes of pressure at their disposal. Already, the OAS has suspended Honduras’ membership, virtually all countries (the exceptions are Israel and Taiwan) have rejected the Micheletti government and recognized Zelaya and his ambassadors, and various countries, including the United States, have suspended millions of dollars of aid. Simply put, the OAS countries are running out of sticks to force Zelaya’s return, and, with less than 100 days left before voters go to the polls, not recognizing these elections may be all they have left.
The result is a dangerous stand-off. Micheletti seems content to let the clock run out, hold elections and pass the buck to the next President. And it may be that once the elections take place, certain OAS countries feel compelled to recognize them; after all, Honduras seems far from a pariah state, and countries like Colombia and Peru have less of a stake in Zelaya’s return. Should the elections go smoothly and certain countries defect, this would provoke division within the OAS and weaken Zelaya’s international base. This is where Micheletti’s hopes lie.
Pro-Zelaya groups appear intent not to let this happen. In addition to Zelaya’s international lobbying, his supporters in Honduras have declared their intentions to boycott the elections. Micheletti’s government has responded by vowing to prevent any boycott. This raises the specter of greater confrontations and violence and the further de-legitimization of Micheletti’s regime.
Unfortunately, as neither Micheletti nor Zelaya cedes ground, each one also finds himself in more and more uncharted territory. The more Latin America looks to the past for guidance, the more this crisis stands out as unprecedented. The danger is that, in this showdown, the consequences of each action mount as the elections approach.
In the past, the United States would likely have played a determining role in such a crisis in Honduras. But the Obama administration has tread more softly in Latin America, seeking consensus once other countries have staked out their positions. This week, the State Department adopted a position that gives it flexibility should things change—it called for “free, fair and transparent” elections, but affirmed that, as things stand, it would follow the rest of Latin America and not recognize the elections. The Obama administration has been right not to use the bully pulpit as it seeks to repair the damage that former President George W. Bush brought on the United States’ relationship with Latin America. Nor is it likely that Venezuela, Ecuador and their allies will solve this crisis.
This means that the greatest hope of finding compromise in the current Honduran crisis may lie with moderate countries like Brazil, Mexico and Chile. Should they work together, these countries’ less ideological positions could enable them to avoid the extremes of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela) while working to restore democratic order in Honduras.
*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.