Democracy Loses the Honduran Election

It's an abomination that Sunday's presidential vote came without consequence for the country's coup-makers.


After five months of political deadlock in Honduras, conservative cattle rancher Porfirio Lobo seems to have lifted the country out of crisis. Lobo, who shares neither the left-leaning ideology nor the cowboy hat touted by ousted President Manuel Zelaya, handsomely won Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras with 55 percent of the vote. Despite the relative dearth of foreign observers present to see the vote, it seems clear that Hondurans turned up in decent numbers, that the election was largely devoid of violence, and that it more or less met international standards. Already, a group of countries led by the United States, Honduras’s most vital ally and trade partner, has announced that they will recognize Lobo’s victory. They are no doubt relieved to find a seemingly quiet exit from months of political disarray.

Given the harsh and unanimous international condemnation that met the June 28  coup, this turn of events should be counted as a great victory for Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president of the country since then. Unfortunately, the plaudits end there. This is not a win for Honduras, and it’s certainly no shining day for democracy.

The problem is not that countries recognized the election. Recognizing it is better than not recognizing it, which would have been the surest way to prolong this sorry episode. The real problem is that the apparent success of the election lets the orchestrators of the coup get away scot-free after casually kicking out an elected official. It is one thing to convince the international community to turn a blind eye to a crass deposition of a legitimate president; it is quite another to achieve that without paying any price whatsoever for it. The coup team has now accomplished both. And so the shortcomings of the Honduras’s rotten political system have simply been crystallized.

Instead, the elusive prize of international legitimacy for the new Honduran government should have been conferred after a meaningful process of national dialogue — a process including the zelayistas (and Zelaya himself). Even better, international favor could have been conditioned on an effort to rethink a surreal constitution that leaves the country vulnerable to future democratic breakdowns. Or perhaps a serious introspection among the Honduran elite about the introduction of social reforms of the sort that are desperately needed in a country afflicted by the pervasive poverty and obscene inequalities that make Zelaya-style populism an irresistible temptation. Lobo paid lip service to these lofty goals upon proclaiming his victory, but now that the threat of international isolation has been removed, it’s unlikely that anything will come of it.

The Honduran political elite are reading this outcome as an unconditional victory and, above all, as a license to return to politics as usual, as though nothing had happened. That will mean a return to the usual tooth-and-nail fight between factions of the well-heeled oligarchy — each cheered on by segments of the impoverished populace — for the spoils of a weak state. With such a political style and such a lack of political leadership — both made obvious in this episode — it is no wonder that Honduras is dead last on the fight against corruption in Central America, according to the figures just released by Transparency International.

To be sure, this is no vindication of Zelaya, an irresponsible politician who is as much a part and a product of the Honduran elite as anyone. The ousted president played his hand poorly: His unsurpassed ability to ramble confirmed all the prejudices about him, and his racking up miles in Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s plane proved a dead-end route to regaining the presidency. Zelaya will go down in history as the single biggest culprit in his own coup. He was right about one thing (revising the Honduran constitution) but for the wrong reasons (he wanted to tamper with term limits and re-election clauses). He doesn’t have a political future other than as a cause célèbre at all the future jamborees organized by Chávez and his Bolivarian colleagues.

But Chávez is also a loser here. The Venezuelan president was quickly cut out of the picture by all the relevant actors — including Zelaya — months ago; he won’t have a friend in Tegucigalpa now that Lobo has been elected. It is even a defeat of sorts for Brazil, which was thrown into the center of the crisis by Zelaya’s decision to seek shelter at the Brazilian Embassy and then missed the chance to deploy regional influence and craft an adequate political settlement.

And it is a resounding defeat for the Organization of American States (OAS), which is left in tatters, incapable of protecting the lofty goals of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and equally unable to bridge not just the traditional divide between the hemisphere’s North and South but now also the ideological rift that is threatening to split Latin America between left and right. In particular, the fact that the United States and Brazil are publicly at odds over the recognition of the Honduran election (Brasilia is refusing to recognize the results) is likely to accelerate a process through which Brazil abandons the OAS in favor of other regional outfits, such as the Union of South American Nations, where it can wield power more freely.

Finally, it is a gaping failure for U.S. diplomacy, which shifted from indignation with the June 28 coup to indifference, to confusion, and finally to acquiescence — all in less than five months. The crisis laid bare the State Department and the White House’s completely incoherent approach toward Latin America. The United States should be particularly embarrassed about the collapse of the purported agreement between Micheletti and Zelaya, heralded as a diplomatic triumph by everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sen. John Kerry. Before the champagne stopped fizzing, the big triumph morphed into a big debacle, when it became clear that the Honduran Congress had no intention of reversing the coup by reinstating Zelaya before the election. Either the U.S. diplomats announced the accord believing that the Honduran Congress was ready to reinstate Zelaya (in which case they were taken for a ride by the Honduran political elite), or they announced it knowing full well that the votes were not there. In the former hypothesis, they behaved with remarkable incompetence; in the latter, with remarkable cynicism. In both cases, Washington’s credibility as an interlocutor of future political crises in the region is damaged.

And maybe that’s exactly what the State Department wants: to steer clear of disputes in Latin America, a minor headache in the big scheme of things. But a lot of people, in Latin America and beyond, will take note. While there’s no clear risk of a Honduras-style coup cropping up anytime soon, Micheletti’s ability to make Foggy Bottom dance to his own tune will nevertheless be recorded and remembered by other oligarchies in the region. Moreover, Washington’s inability to impose an adequate political solution to a petty power struggle in Honduras raises legitimate questions about America’s diplomatic prowess. Not only that, if Washington couldn’t handle Honduras, how will it tackle the Middle East?

Alas, there’s not a lot to gloat about in the outcome of this hapless episode. Micheletti and Lobo are simply the last men standing on a barren landscape. Their victory is a hollow one. And make no mistake: It is no victory for democracy.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as vice president of Costa Rica from 2006 to 2007.