Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Zelaya's Point of No Return
The world community is right to have second thoughts about restoring the ousted Manuel Zelaya to power in Honduras
Tuesday July 7 2009
As Honduras enters its second week of political crisis, the international community is beginning to take a second look at the murky circumstances under which the Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and exiled from the country on June 28.
Until last weekend, world leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the so-called military coup. But having been forced to watch the spectacle continue for a second straight week, the world has now become painfully aware of two things they had not anticipated.
The first is how ardent, unanimous, and organized the interim government in Honduras is against any sort of reprieve for Zelaya, much less his reinstatement.
The second is how erratic and unfit for leadership Zelaya has become. Both realisations have caused diplomats to rethink their strategies in the push for Zelaya's immediate and unrestricted return to power. As the standoff continues this week, the international community would be wise to bite its tongue and instead, push for what world leaders initially called a "Honduran solution" ? even if it's not the one they had in mind.
Last week's stance was simple: whether or not Zelaya's ouster is deemed a coup or not, removal of a democratically elected president by military force cannot be endorsed. With little further understanding of the contemporary politics of Honduras, this was the starting point with which the international community reacted. Initially, it appeared highly unlikely that the interim government assembled last week would be able to resist the mounting international pressure and growing isolation to reinstate Zelaya. Central American neighbours temporarily closed their borders to Honduras, donor agencies suspended aid, and some governments even threatened military intervention. As of last week, not a single country had agreed to recognise Roberto Micheletti as the new head of state. For one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, economic and political isolation in the name of liberty is simply not tenable, so the reasoning went.
Over the weekend, that reasoning changed. On Sunday, Zelaya's triumphant return was stymied by a determined Honduran military, and bolstered by popular support for the interim government. Zelaya's premature and embarrassing return attempt may well prove to be the turning point in this high-stakes drama. As the clock ticks on Zelaya's comeback, the option of moving up November's elections to September becomes an increasingly appealing resolution for the international community.
Widely reviled by the political class in Honduras (including the leaders of his own Honduran Liberal Party), Zelaya is now known not only as the hapless president ousted at gunpoint in his pajamas, but also by his atrocious governance record and erratic behaviour ? which includes nearly doubling the minimum wage to the severe detriment of his country's economy, repeatedly refusing to submit a 2009 budget to congress, and ultimately disavowing both legislative and judicial checks on his power. Some countries, such as Canada, Taiwan and Israel are beginning to hedge their initial tacit support for Zelaya's return. Others that were only last week pushing for Zelaya's reinstatement are starting to realise that the bloodshed and turmoil that his return would inevitably cause may simply not be worth the trouble.
With the standoff as it is, key international leaders and organisations should take the following steps ? some of which they may already be doing behind closed doors - to help Honduras move forward.
First, someone in Micheletti's circle needs to help his interim government understand the necessity of managing its international public relations to help position itself for the coming negotiations. Loyalist partisans now serving as spokespeople for the government have failed miserably in persuading anyone outside of Tegucigalpa that the Honduran constitution ? which has no single mention of a provision for the removal of a president from office ? provides a legal basis for their actions. Blind intransigence worked to create the impasse thus far, but it will undercut their position as they seek to regain the confidence and repeal the sanctions of their allies, as well to placate a confused and increasingly indignant Honduran population.
Second, outsiders must ratchet down the rhetoric on "the future of Hemispheric democracy," the pressure to cut out aid for the poor, and the impending loss of OAS membership. They should focus less on pure democratic principles ? which have clearly failed Hondurans in one way or another over the past several months ? and more on pragmatic solutions that take into account both the precarious conditions on the ground and alternative resolutions that don't necessarily include Zelaya's full restoration.
Third, as Zelaya returns this week to Washington DC for meetings, key players like Hillary Clinton and Jose Miguel Insulza should take the opportunity to privately remind Zelaya and his entourage that without widespread international support, he would quickly join the lonely ranks of other regional coup victims such as Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Ecuador's Jamil Mahuad ? inept and corrupt heads of state that were also removed from office, but with less than fierce global support for their respective reinstatements (both men live quite comfortably in exile today).
This might temper Zelaya's sense of entitlement and help him see the merit of scenarios that entail him standing down for the good and safety of his country. If some world leaders ? perhaps Brazil's Lula ? can shake some sense into Zelaya by threatening to temper international support, Zelaya could be forced to acquiesce to a brokered deal of immunity in return for a voluntary resignation. If he refuses, his only other option would be taking shelter within the Latin American left led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a bloc which would make him a political martyr but likely be ineffective in retuning him to power, especially as the Honduran interim government seeks to run out the clock on Zelaya's remaining term in office.
We now know that a deal must be brokered, and that cooler heads must prevail. In order to curtail increased suffering and possible bloodshed, swift action towards a peaceful resolution is called for. Swift action this week, however, as opposed to last week, will now need to be coupled with more nuanced consideration of the problems and a focus on pragmatic solutions.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009