Reporting from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Mexico City -- The de facto rulers of Honduras will observe more than elections Sunday: They staged the first military-backed coup in Central America in 16 years -- and got away with it.
Months of international efforts failed to reinstate President Manuel Zelaya, ousted June 28 and deported to Costa Rica. Instead, the most powerful outside mediator, the United States, agreed to recognize the outcome of Sunday’s vote for a new president. Several other countries will not, saying that a “free and fair” vote cannot be held under the watch of a de facto government.
Does an election that is not recognized count? Many in Honduras and elsewhere hope the choosing of a new leader will allow the slate to be cleaned and Honduras to emerge from the diplomatic and political isolation that followed Zelaya’s removal.
But Zelaya’s backers and others say that, far from a solution, the election will only further deepen the impoverished nation’s stark divisions, as well as set a bad precedent by allowing a coup to stand.
Zelaya, who sneaked back into the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on Sept. 21 and has been sheltered in the Brazilian Embassy since, on Friday called on supporters to boycott the “spurious electoral process.” Major international election-monitoring groups, such as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, refused to send observers.
Several human rights organizations Friday denounced a “climate of terror” after weeks in which de facto authorities have cracked down on opposition media and arrested scores of opponents. A handful of low-charge explosives have detonated in recent days at the Supreme Court and pro-coup businesses.
In another setback for Zelaya, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a settlement to the Honduran crisis, said he would recognize the results of the election. To do otherwise, he told CNN’s Spanish-language service, would be to further punish the Honduran people.
Roberto Micheletti, the man who replaced Zelaya in the coup, promised that “peace and tranquillity will prevail” in Honduras for the vote. Authorities went through the motions of a normal election, with the army and police distributing ballot boxes nationwide.
“Our mission is not just to win elections but to produce a change beginning with the reconciliation and unity of Hondurans,” leading presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo said this week at the closing rally of his campaign.
Lobo, 61, of the National Party, and Elvin Santos, 46, of the ruling Liberal Party, are the front-runners. Their parties are both conservative factions with close ties to the military and have traded leadership of Honduras for years.
One minor independent candidate dropped out, saying the election was not legitimate.
Leo Valladares, a former human rights ombudsman and law professor who did not support the coup, said Friday that the election may be a “first step” out of the crisis. But he said the next president must confront the underlying troubles that have polarized Honduras, which is run by a small conservative elite.
“Look, the negotiation between Zelaya and Micheletti was going nowhere,” Valladares said.
“Maybe, by changing the faces of the government, tensions will begin to subside and the new government . . . could be more conciliatory. Whoever wins cannot turn a deaf ear to the demands of the resistance.”
Zelaya, a timber tycoon who alienated the elite by turning to the left, has also seen his support flag. One leftist political party allied with him rejected his call for a boycott and decided to participate in the election, saying it was better to attempt to effect change within the system than from the margins.
Zelaya was ousted after he ignored a court order to stop exploring ways to change the constitution that would allow him to serve another term.
On Friday, he filed a complaint with the Organization of American States, attacking the “manifest ambiguity and contradiction” of U.S. government policy.
Initially, the Obama administration, along with most of the international community, strongly condemned the coup and demanded that Zelaya be reinstated. As the crisis dragged on, however, the U.S. seemed to waver. Finally, top American diplomats helped broker an agreement Oct. 30 that would allow the Honduran Congress to decide whether Zelaya could finish out his term ending Jan. 27.
Zelaya and Micheletti both agreed to the deal. Zelaya and his supporters assumed Congress would vote before the election, but no sooner was the ink dry than congressional leaders, many of whom backed the coup, announced that they would not convene until after the election.
Still, U.S. officials decided to lend support to the vote.
“This is an electoral process that follows the normal electoral calendar under the Honduran Constitution, and it had been underway for several months prior to the coup,” Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said this week.
“This was not an election invented by a de facto government in search of an exit strategy or as a means to whitewash a coup d’etat.”
But others say a bad precedent is being set that will undermine Washington’s ability to work in the region at a time when President Obama has pledged a “new beginning” in U.S.-Latin ties.
“The U.S. needed a way out,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director for the Americas Society think tank. “But what we’ve done is allow a coup to stand. And I fear this will erode regional consensus about the defense of democracy. . . . The U.S. has lost its moral authority to push back” on other issues in the region.
Though it seems something of a moot point, the Honduran Congress plans to convene Wednesday to debate whether Zelaya should be reinstated. As expected, the Supreme Court, which earlier endorsed the coup, issued a nonbinding judgment Thursday recommending against Zelaya’s return to office because of pending criminal charges against him.
Renderos is a special correspondent.