Honduran Standoff Near an End?

A shaky political truce emerged late last month in Honduras, promising an end to more than four months of political turmoil that followed the early summer ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. The Central American nation is almost certainly set for more short-term tension: Some form of unity government must take shape; the issue of Zelaya’s reinstatement for the brief remainder of his term must be resolved; and national elections are to be held on Nov. 29. It is still unclear if the upcoming election will be as widely embraced internationally as Zelaya’s ouster was widely condemned.

The roots of the conflict in Honduras go back long before the military’s guns were pointed at the democratically elected president as he was forced to leave his country—still wearing his pajamas—on June 28. The manner of his removal began a debate throughout the region over its constitutional legitimacy. The U.S. State Department, for its part, quickly condemned the events of June 28 as an unlawful coup and joined other members of the Organization of American States in demanding Zelaya’s restoration to office.

“But Zelaya is no saint,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy for the New York-based Council of the Americas. “He had already overstepped the bounds of the constitution, calling for what was clearly an unconstitutional plebiscite, one that had been refused by the [Honduran] Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Zelaya’s populist push and explicit appeals to the poor laid bare deep class divisions, and even deeper divisions between the president and the congress and the courts. “There was already an institutional train wreck in motion,” Sabatini said.

According to Luis Cosenza, a former minister in the center-right government of the former Honduran president, Ricardo Maduro, the agreement between Zelaya and the interim president, Roberto Micheletti, marks a new beginning for Honduras. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “From a purely pragmatic political point of view, I think it’s a reasonable agreement. I think it preserves democracy.” Cosenza emphasized that the agreement stipulates there will be no constitutional congress assembled to draft a new constitution, nor any amnesty for the restored president’s alleged crimes.

The upheaval caused by Zelaya’s ouster has been at times acute. Mass pro-Zelaya protests on the streets of Tegucigalpa were met with counter-demonstrations. Eventually the Mi-cheletti government banned protests and shut down pro-Zelaya media outlets. Zelaya managed to re-enter the country on Sept. 21 and found refuge at the Brazilian embassy. From there, he continued to agitate for his return to power, and more street confrontations followed.

The recent agreement, brokered in part by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, allows for Zelaya to serve out the remaining two months of his term, subject to congressional approval. “The Congress did originally approve Zelaya’s removal,” said Sabatini, “but the agreement gives them an opportunity to unwind that decision.” He cautioned, “I’m worried that things could still fall apart.”

Throughout the crisis, most elite groups in Honduran society strongly opposed Zelaya’s restoration. The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal Andrés Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, signaled his support for Zelaya’s removal in a letter dated July 3 signed by all Honduran bishops. But almost immediately a split emerged in the Catholic leadership as Bishop Luis Santos Villeda of the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán began expressing his displeasure with the de facto government. On Sept. 24 he issued a statement denouncing coup leaders, urging a return to “constitutional order” and singling out “the unjust distribution of wealth, which creates deep inequalities in Honduras.”

Robert Pelton, C.S.C., an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America at the University of Notre Dame, said he was “extremely surprised” by the split and particularly by Rodriguez’s decision to support Zelaya’s removal. “[The bishops] ordinarily stand together,” he said. He thinks that division prevented the local church from serving as a mediator in the crisis.

“The divided nature of the church added to this confusion and disorientation of the populace that there’s no clear, moral center on this issue,” said Sabatini. In the future, he argued, the international community needs to address interruptions of democratic order before they reach a crisis state. For now: “We need to close the chapter on both Zelaya and Micheletti,” he said. “What needs to be established is a new government of national unity that can restore Hondurans’ faith in government.”

The next several weeks are sure to test that faith.

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