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After Optimism, A Predictable Standstill in Honduras

Last week, Honduras’s World Cup qualification left the country glowing with optimism.  Now, irrepressible hope and joy have again given way to a grimmer reality: political negotiations have hit a wall. 

After finding agreement on the first seven of eight points on the agenda, the Guaymuras Dialogue negotiators have reached a predictable impasse on the most contentious point: Manuel Zelaya’s restitution.  Since Friday, the two teams have been sending proposals and counter-proposals back and forth.  Zelaya’s side has called for the Congress as adjudicator, while Roberto Micheletti’s side has insisted that the Supreme Court settle the issue. Now, the Micheletti negotiators have proposed getting reports from both branches of government before settling the issue, which Zelaya’s team has rejected.

Zelaya’s negotiators have now accused the other side of obstructionism, and they’re right.  On first glance, it seems reasonable to ask the Supreme Court to settle a clearly constitutional issue.  But, as Victor Meza expressed, the judiciary has already offered its judgment—since the coup, the Supreme Court has sided with the “constitutional succession” version of the story, supported Micheletti’s government, and roundly condemned Zelaya at every turn.  Thus, appealing to the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter at this point would be akin to double jeopardy—with the same case and the same jury, could anyone really expect a different result?

Interestingly, it’s not clear that Zelaya’s proposal would get him the result he wants.  Since the coup, the Congress has also consistently sided with Micheletti.  In addition, leading members of Congress have suggested that they would have to defer to the Supreme Court on constitutional issues. So a favorable finding for Zelaya—who has already given up the possibility of amnesty—is no foregone conclusion. That said, Zelaya seems to be banking on congressional representatives’ greater stake in internationally recognized elections, even if it means accepting Zelaya’s brief return to power. 

In the meantime, the current standstill will continue to suit Micheletti, who remains perfectly happy to run out the clock and pass this problem onto the country’s next elected leader.  But the delay should be unacceptable to Hondurans and the international community, for several reasons:

First, elections without international legitimacy would cast a dark shadow on the next four years in Honduras.  The Micheletti regime has tried its best to get as many prominent and institutions as possible on-board for election observation—e.g., Rotary International, ex-Guatemalan president Álvaro Arzú, business groups from various countries.  In addition, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and pro-Micheletti media are trying to dupe the Honduran public by saying that they await Jimmy Carter’s confirmation that he will be in attendance —in truth, the invitation was sent, but the Carter Center has never suggested it will observe without a negotiated settlement.

If the elections take place without a Zelaya-Micheletti agreement, the international community will maintain its vociferous opposition.  True, certain countries like Panama may defect and support the new regime, but the ALBA countries certainly will not, and their position will make other major OAS players (e.g., Mexico and the United States) look very bad should they support the new regime.  The OAS countries long ago cast their lot with Zelaya.  As Chris Sabatini has pointed out, not restoring Zelaya would set a dangerous precedent for the region; it is a precedent that the region’s leaders should and in all liklihood will not accept.

Second, isolation would have a heavy economic and human cost.  Already, individual country donors and multilateral agencies have suspended hundreds of millions of dollars of aid—for infrastructure, institution-building, education, and many other critical needs—to Honduras.  The economy is already in bad shape, made worse by the global financial crisis; Honduras needs international aid now as much as ever.  After aid, the next thing to come could be trade sanctions, which would be an unmitigated disaster for this small, export-dependent country.  And, as always, the poor would bear the brunt of it.

Third, the prospect of violence remains.  This week, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez both recklessly reported that members of the Honduran Resistencia are looking to buy arms in neighboring countries.  There’s no way to substantiate these claims at this point, and the Zelayistas have denied them, but they will certainly be enough to convince the Honduran Right to dig its heels in even more and possibly serve as a justification for further repressing the opposition and limiting citizens’ rights. 

Elections would provide the obvious stage for this new repression.  Absent a Zelaya-Micheletti accord, the Resistencia would boycott the polls, with teachers’ unions trying to prevent the schools from being used as polling stations.  The military—constitutionally placed under the control of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for the month before elections—would then have to decide how to respond.  While one hopes sanity would prevail, precedent in recent months offers little comfort about the likely outcome.  This scenario should make it clear that, while stalling suits Micheletti’s short-term interest of preventing Zelaya’s restitution, obstructed negotiations will continue to be bad news for Honduras. 

In the past two weeks, OAS representatives have insisted that they are leaving room for a “Honduran solution” to Honduran problems. Now, OAS representative John Biehl seems to be the only person still expressing optimism about the negotiations.  Perhaps his position as neutral observer demands that he remain optimistic until the very end.  But if Micheletti keeps blocking the negotiations, the OAS needs to have the gumption to insist that the de facto President shape up.

*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.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: OAS, Honduras, Micheletti, Honduras crisis, Zelaya, Honduran Resistencia

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