It appears that Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president of Honduras, overplayed his hand on Sunday when he announced a decree that closed down two media outlets (Radio Globo and Canal 36), dissolved the right of assembly and permitted police to detain suspects without warrents. Just for good measure he also gave the Brazilian embassy a 10-day ultimatum to release elected-President Mel Zelaya, saying that the government would not respect the embassy as Brazilian territory (a violation of diplomatic protocol and what would amount to—according to the Brazilian government—as an invasion of Brazilian territory). And he threw out the OAS delegation that had arrived, saying they had come too early.
In a move familiar to President Zelaya before he was unconstitutionally removed, the Honduran Congress said that it would not support Micheletti’s decree.
A visibly shaken Michelletti issued a televised mea culpa and said the decree would be suspended. But its effects on clamping down on the media and heading off demonstrations were still felt.
The question is: has Micheletti lost it? I mean this both in the sense of his political strategy and his political/institutional support.
First, the wisdom of the move. The coup President has shown a remarkable level of stubborn disregard for the international community—a result in large part of his conviction of the legitimacy of the government’s actions and his belief that other governments haven’t taken Zelaya seriously as a threat to Honduran democracy. But the actions on Sunday have effectively closed off what was Micheletti’s last (narrow) path out of this: the November 29th elections and the hope that somehow, someway the international community would accept them as a path forward and recognize the winner.
It was unlikely, and foreign governments had already said they would not accept the results of elections convened by a de facto government. (The argument that we’ve accepted elections conducted under other de facto governments—say in Argentina or Chile—simply doesn’t hold water. Those were transitional elections intended to remove the military from power, which it had held for years. Accepting them in the Honduras case amounts to accepting any de facto government’s right to remove an elected government that it doesn’t like and convene elections to patch things up—it’s not a precedent we want to set.)
But, by acting to limit freedom of expression and freedom of association, Micheletti has established a context for elections that, a priori, will not be free and fair. The basic conditions for free and fair elections are laws and protections that guarantee freedom of access to information, freedom to conduct political rallies, freedom of expression…all the things that allow for full, unfettered democratic electoral competition. By closing down these avenues he has de-legitimized the elections, even for the few days or so that these measures will be in place—not to mention the chilling effect they’ll have in the future.
Which brings me to whether Micheletti’s political support is fraying: it would certainly appear so. Let’s look at where that support (and the opposition to Zelaya) comes from: the Congress (which rejected a series of Zelaya’s orders, revoked his mandate and swore in Micheletti); the two presidential candidates for the November 28 contest (Elvin Santos of Zelaya’s Liberal Party and Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the National Party—both of whom had been chosen before the June 28 coup); Honduran business (which paid for Micheletti’s lobbyists in Washington); the military (which bundled up President Zelaya and whisked him out of the country); and the Supreme Court (which “tried” Zelaya—in a non-transparent hearing without giving him a right to defend himself—and ordered his arrest).
All of these should be firmly behind the leader they helped put in office, Micheletti, right?
Let’s start with the Congress. Clearly the Congress is beginning to get the willies about what Micheletti is doing. By ramping up the repression, he risks undermining their carefully crafted sophistry about how this coup was constitutional and how the elections are the way out. After meeting with Micheletti, the President of the Congress, José Alfredo Saavedra stated bluntly, “We need to lower the pressure, and all begin to calm down so that we can have a dialogue.”
The two leading candidates aren’t happy either. You would be a fool to want to inherit the presidential sash from the government now under Micheletti, shaken by protests, isolated internationally, without access to foreign credit, foreign aid reduced to a trickle, regular denunciations by human rights groups. All of this makes President Obama’s job as President look easy.
This is why, Santos and Lobo Sosa were involved in the original discussions with Costa Rican President Óscar Arias. Now that things have deteriorated, however, they have taken a more active role, even holding separate discussions with Zelaya and Micheletti. Their dilemma is this: with the exception of the 30 percent that still—vehemently—supports Zelaya, the unseated President remains deeply unpopular with Honduran voters. So, calling for his return to power—even in a neutered form—could be political suicide. One candidate briefly tried it and then backpedaled. Yet, it’s essential to their ability to get out of this mess. No doubt this is the very point of their discussions with Micheletti. They need to find a way for Zelaya to return in order to allow for a legitimate election and international recognition, but in a way that doesn’t require them to call for it.
Whether Micheletti will do this or not is another matter.
The third is the military. We have already seen cracks in the military’s support for Micheletti. The first cracks came in late July when junior officers issued two statements claiming that in sending Zelaya packing they were just following orders and should not be tagged as the fall guys and by declaring their support for the Arias’ San José Accords. The second crack lies in the mystery of how Zelaya got back into the country. There are allegations of radio contacts and of Micheletti’s own nervousness about loyalty among the troops. Now, today (Tuesday), the army forces commander Romeo Vazquez is urging a negotiated settlement—and this was the guy who supposedly clamped down on the junior officers when they released their statement in late July! Support there is waning.
Apart from these sectors experiencing second thoughts, the other two are more difficult to assess. The business community has been firmly in support of Micheletti, even sending members to Washington to lobby on his behalf and hiring paid guns to deliver their message of solidarity and constitutionality. But two things have intervened to hurt them: the first is the US government’s suspension of several businessmen’s visas and the second is the declining economic fortunes of the country. With the path of repression that Micheletti has taken the country down and the unanimous international condemnation (and continued isolation it implies) Honduras is looking a little less business friendly to investors.
So, at what point will they decide that Micheletti is more of a liability than a temporary return of Zelaya for ceremonial purposes? It’s not hard to believe that that time may be approaching. But we don’t know.
And the Supreme Court remains a mystery. Clearly they played a proactive role in Zelaya’s arrest and removal, but they’re unlikely to play a political role in the negotiations. The only possible vote they will have in the matter is whether, in the event of a negotiated settlement that allows Zelaya’s return, they will dismiss, postpone or reduce the charges against him. The latter is a stated precondition for Zelaya’s return to power. It may be a bitter pill for the Supreme Court to swallow. But a more difficult one is undoubtedly watching the country slide toward a pattern of flagrant human rights violations that by its silence are implicitly sanctioned by the highest court. The Supreme Court may not negotiate or even desire his return, but the alternative now (especially since they claimed they had Zelaya whisked out of the country to avoid violent protests) must be looking pretty grim.
In short, Micheletti’s three-month reign as de facto president may be coming to an end. He has clearly been shaken by events, overplayed his hand and is now facing the defection of key elements of his coalition: the congress, the presidential candidates, the army and, quite possibly, the business community and the Supreme Court. All that’s left now is a graceful, negotiated exit.
One last note: again, none of this is to justify Zelaya’s stunt. It was a foolish, excessively dangerous act that provoked upheaval and violence. But, ultimately, as in any case of government repression (whether in Cuba and Venezuela today or in Chile and Argentina by the military governments of the 1970s and 1980s) the decision and the responsibility for repression ultimately lies with the government—as does the cost in terms of human rights, injuries and lives lost.