As ousted President Manuel Zelaya entered his third month holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Honduras’ capital city Tegulcigalpa, it appears unlikely that the popularly elected Honduran president, deposed on June 28, will spend Christmas anywhere else but with the Brazilians. Attempts to negotiate Zelaya’s extraction from the compound and transfer to another Latin American nation—Mexico and the Dominican Republic were contenders—failed when de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti refused an unconditional safe conduct for Zelaya. Micheletti, asserting that Zelaya would be arrested and forced to face accusations of corruption and constitutional offences if he tried to leave the embassy, was willing to allow Zelaya to leave if he agreed to renounce his claim on the presidency. Zelaya refused.
“He seems to be going for martyrdom,” said Adam Isacson, director of programs and Latin America specialist at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Isacson said that there is every indication that the Zelaya-Micheletti standoff will continue until President-elect Pepe Lobo assumes the Honduran presidency on January 27. Isacson said that Lobo may be a little more amenable to resolving the confrontation at the embassy and getting Zelaya out of the country with the hope of moving Honduras closer to normalcy. The embassy is currently surrounded by Honduran military and police who are keeping an eye on Zelaya and thwarting any opportunity for supporters to reach him or organize demonstrations nearby.
Andy Lanie, a State Department spokesperson in Washington, confirmed press reports that U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens had visited Zelaya on Sunday, but could not report any progress on efforts to establish safe passage for Zelaya. “This is something that needs to be worked out by all parties in Honduras,” he said.
How Hondurans get past months of crisis that began with Zelaya’s removal from office and his subsequent clandestine return and standoff at the embassy is unclear. While many international observers remain critical of an alleged climate of intimidation and repression that existed during the general elections, U.S. officials have expressed confidence that the Nov. 29 elections were reasonably free and fair. The Resistencia Nacional Contra el Golpe de Estado, a loose collective of political and social organizations which worked for Zelaya’s restoration and which promises to continue to confront the Lobo administration, had called for the boycott of the elections. The Honduras election commission reported a 61 percent voter turnout the night of the election, but that figure does not square with its own voter registration roles, which suggest a turnout closer to 49 percent.
The United States is one of the few countries to recognize the results of the national elections, but the U.S. State Department says Honduras de facto leaders must do more before it will restore full relations. The U.S. had been advocating for some sort of restoration of Zelaya to power before the inauguration of the new president, but that prospect now seems wholly far-fetched. A U.S. brokered deal to return Zelaya to power quickly unraveled in November, and on Dec. 2 the National Congress voted against the restitution of Zelaya 111 to 14. Having resisted months of pressure from the Organization of America States, Costa Rica, Brazil, and the United States, the de facto government of Honduras now appears willing to simply wait for the dissipation of diplomatic opprobrium. “The [Micheletti] faction has no incentive to do anything,” said Isacson. “In Honduras we are seeing the precedent of a successful military coup.”
Isacson said an “ideal scenario” for Honduras following the resolution of Zelaya’s status would include a general amnesty, a truth and reconciliation process, and a national convention to rewrite the constitution. (The Honduran constitution had been composed at the end of 10 years of military rule in 1982. It was Zelaya’s attempts to call a constitutional convention, amid suspicions that he sought to extend his presidency by altering it, that touched off the crisis in June.) Key to any national reconciliation, said Isacson, would be the active participation of the Resistencia. Isacson had little confidence his best outcome plan was likely to play out in Honduras, and worse results are still possible.
Especially troubling has been sporadic violence that has occurred in the aftermath of the elections. Recently an assassination attempt on a prominent Zelaya supporter led to the death of his two bodyguards, and last week, Walter Trochez, a Resistencia leader and gay-rights activists, was gunned down just days after his arrest and interrogation by government security. Trochez was a key witness in proceedings against the military for the killing of a resistance member near the Nicaraguan border in July. But members of the left have not been the only victims of violence. On Dec. 16 the 16-year-old, pregnant daughter of a conservative television commentator was killed in her car by two men on a motorcycle. De facto president Micheletti blamed the assassination on Zelaya supporters.
The State Department lifted its travel advisory on Honduras on Dec. 8, and Isacson said general unrest was unlikely. He was more concerned that ’80s-style military death squads were being “reactivated.”
“I think we’re going to see a rise in extra-judicial killings and targeted assassinations,” Isacson said.
Though he said the State Department started out strong in response to Zelaya’s removal at the hands of Honduran military, Isacson suggested that in the end the Obama administration mishandled the affair, succumbing to pressure from conservative Republicans in Congress—advocates of recognition of the new regime in Tegulcigalpa—who had placed a hold on crucial State Department appointments over the summer. One such appointee, U.S. diplomat Thomas Shannon, brokered an apparent agreement to restore to power in October, then effectively cut the legs out of the deal by suggesting the U.S. would accept the outcome of the Nov. 29 elections regardless of Zelaya’s status. This sudden reversal caught the major Latin American players in the crisis by surprise. In the final analysis, said Isacson, the biggest impact from the Obama administration performance in Honduras may be the damage the “fiasco” has done to U.S. credibility and its relationships with regional power brokers in Latin American, particularly Brazil and Costa Rica.
In an e-mailed statement, State Department Spokesperson Andy Lanie reiterated current U.S. policy on Honduras: "We call on all parties to avoid steps that increase division and needlessly prolong tensions. We strongly encourage all actors to participate in a national dialogue on restoring the democratic and constitutional order, and on implementing the remaining elements of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord. We continue to support President-elect Lobo’s efforts to implement the Accord as the best way forward for Honduras to restore its democratic and constitutional order and normalize its relations with the rest of the world. Looking forward, the elements of the Accord that have not been implemented are the formation of a national unity government and the establishment of a truth commission."