- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
The walls may be closing in on former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s tin foil-lined bunker in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, but until his status is determined the Honduran people cannot begin to move beyond the crisis that has roiled their country for the past six months. (Full disclosure: I helped a Honduran business delegation travel to Washington in July 2009 to brief U.S. policymakers on the crisis there.)
Still, with a successful election having taken place on Nov. 29 for Zelaya’s duly elected successor as president — won by Porfirio Lobo of the opposition National Party — and with the Honduras Congress voting 111-14 to deny Zelaya’s temporary return to office, it is not too early to identify political winners and losers as Honduras begins to put its political and economic house back in order.
The Honduran People. Public opinion polls consistently showed that the Honduran people overwhelmingly opposed the return of Manuel Zelaya to office. Facing regional ostracism and sanctions, their stand spoke to the depth of their fears of Zelaya’s return and the instability he would bring in his wake. It also said infinitely more than a thousand speeches from foreign capitals lecturing them that they had to restore their rogue president back to office. Still, Honduran elites ought to take the past year as a wake-up call that a sizable portion of the population feels alienated from current political and economic arrangements and wants (and deserves) something better. To pretend it doesn’t exist only invites more crises. The Lobo administration must make national reconciliation his first priority.
Latin American Electorates. Finally, somewhere in the region Chavismo was stopped dead in its tracks. No longer is it inevitable that a neo-populist rides a wave of public disaffection into office and then systematically begins to erode democratic institutions until all national power is vested in him. While the Left is in full-throated dudgeon about the supposed blow to democracy in Honduras, they have the situation exactly backwards. The threat to democracy in Honduras was not the Supreme Court or the legislature, it was Manuel Zelaya, who tried to bend (and break) those institutions to his will. Consolidation of democratic institutions and the opening up of economies continue to be the region’s greatest challenges, but neo-populist snake oil is no remedy. There are alternatives, as the Honduran people demonstrated.
U.S.-Honduran Relations. The historically close relationship has been dealt a serious blow by the Obama administration’s zig-zag diplomatic approach to the crisis (see below). Honduras is a signatory to the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), with two-thirds of its exports going to the U.S, while 50 percent of imports are U.S. goods. In addition, remittances from Hondurans in the U.S. amount to almost $3 billion, or one-fifth of GDP. Many Hondurans were stunned by the Obama Administration’s opposition to Zelaya’s deposing and failure to appreciate his increasingly erratic and confrontational rule. The historical solidarity wasn’t there this time, and mutual trust has been damaged. With good faith on both sides, however, traditional close relations can be restored over the long run, beginning first with the restoration of suspended U.S. assistance.
Hugo Chavez. Who would have thought that Honduras would be a bridge too far for the Venezuelan strongman? Certainly not Chavez. After a succession of easy neo-populist electoral victories in the region, he could be forgiven for truly believing in a Bolivarian reunification of the continent under his enlightened leadership. His Bolivarian project has suffered its first defeat, and the danger is how he will respond. He’s got the resources and Fidel Castro the subversive apparatus. Honduras is not out of the woods yet, but Chavismo is suddenly looking vulnerable.
Brazil. Brazil aspires to be a global leader deserving of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But it stumbled badly on Honduras. It moved quickly to denounce the removal of Zelaya and led the regional charge for Honduras’s isolation, but in the end failed to influence the course of events. More egregious, however, was allowing the fugitive Zelaya to re-enter the country and set up shop in its embassy in Tegucigalpa, inflaming an already dangerous situation. Which raises the question, if Brazil can’t even responsibly manage a crisis in tiny Honduras, how does it propose to influence Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
The Organization of American States. The OAS should have been the appropriate vehicle to mediate the crisis, but Secretary General José Miguel Insulza’s rash and intemperate response to Zelaya’s removal (he tried to out-Chavez Chavez) quickly sidelined the organization as an honest broker. The Obama administration had to enlist Costa Rican President Arias to fulfill the role. Career OAS officials were mortified by Insulza’s behavior, and it’s not likely he’s going to recover his credibility anytime soon. It’s no wonder the rumors are the administration will not support the Chilean Socialist for a second term.
The Obama Administration. The Obama administration wound up in the right place by accepting the outcome of the Nov. 29 election and allowing Honduran institutions to rule on Zelaya’s return, but that only came after it reversed its ill-considered earlier position to align itself with Hugo Chavez in demanding Zelaya’s unconditional return to power and threatening to not recognize the election. That flip-flop won the praise of the Washington Post, which performed its own artful back flip by endorsing both policy approaches of the administration — all the while excoriating Congressional Republicans who, from Day One, maintained Zelaya’s illegal conduct forfeited his right to finish his term and supported the November election as a way out of the crisis.
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