Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moving Away from the Abyss?

In a break from Honduras news, I had something else to worry about, a reported threat to the agreement between north and south in Sudan, where I went in 2006. After all the painstaking effort to rehabilitate the south and bring the population back, this is bad news, quite apart from the fact that Darfur is still festering.

Book Party
Last night, a friend held a party to discuss my book, the Peace Corps, and the Honduran situation, the 3rd such event held this year. Fortunately, we mostly draw a different crowd each time, so people won’t get bored. One of those who got a copy of my book, now out in its slightly revised edition, is man writing a book himself about a very remote Amazonian tribe—South American indigenous people being his specialty. His book is not only being published by a mainstream press, but he was even given an advance, something increasingly uncommon in these hard economic times. He also has done stories for National Geographic with photos.

After I learned all this, I hoped he wouldn’t find my book too primitive, a simple kitchen-table effort, self-published and using my own photos rendered only in black-and-white because color would have been prohibitively expensive, edited largely by myself, proofread by a blind friend listening via a computerized voice, and formatted by a young designer fortuitously living at my house last fall. Some readers have told me, “Amazon did really a good job with your book,” when, in fact, Amazon did nothing at all except print copies on demand from the pdf file I submitted. In fact, my designer and I printed out a sample copy first at Kinko’s before we ever sent the file to Amazon’s publishing arm. Readers have also expressed surprise at the readability of the book, frankly expecting a self-published book to be more amateurish. I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not.

In addition to speaking at the book party myself, Betio, my Honduran asylee friend, attending with his family, spoke as well. He recounted (with me as interpreter) his experiences as a threatened environmental activist and protector of the forest and also said he had been in touch with comrades in his organization in Honduras, which is supporting Zelaya and his return as president. Although Betio expressed some misgivings regarding the involvement of Chavez, about whom he confessed knowing very little, he and his organization definitely want to see Zelaya back in Honduras to finish out his presidential term. He felt that Zelaya had truly moved away from his previous allegiance to the rich oligarchy that runs Honduran businesses.

The whole Honduras story gets more bizarre by the day--more fantastic than a tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as I may have commented before. It might be amusing if were not so potentially tragic in its consequences, although I'm hoping against hope that Arias can work something out that may not quite be what each side wants, but something acceptable to each to avoid a devastating civil war.

Also attending the party was a Honduran woman whose own life has been rather bizarre. She has been widowed 5 times (bad luck for any guy intending to marry her). She's had 3 Honduran husbands killed in violence and accidents, and 2 American husbands, one of whom died in an auto accident, the other because of illness. She is living now with a daughter and doesn't seem anxious to marry again.

This woman told us that she had just returned from her family home in Honduras in Olancho province, where my Honduran asylee friend Betio is also from. And Olancho is where Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president has a ranch that this woman said abuts her own family's smaller holdings. She claimed that Zelaya's father, by the same name, wantonly killed squatters on the family estate, buried them in a common pit, was never brought to justice, and died at a ripe old age. If true, it’s another twist of this strange saga. Maybe Zelaya is trying to do penance for his notorious father’s sins by becoming a champion of the poor?

Church Members' Discussion
As someone at my church on this Sunday morning observed, the Honduran clash is a classic class struggle between rich and poor. Wealthy Hondurans, some described in my book, must be worried about their physical safety. What if their servants and guards should turn against them? What if members of the army defect from the de facto government? While the military offers a rare avenue of upward mobility for many (like Blanca’s sons) from humble circumstances, in a class war, where would their ultimate loyalty lie?

Whatever the outcome of the immediate crisis, I do hope that there is no return to the status quo ante and that an effort will be made to better address the needs of the huge underclass. Zelaya attempted to do that by raising the minimum wage to something like $250 per month. He also raised public employee wages, though public employees were already well-compensated, relatively speaking. Now these measures cannot be undone, but they depended on the continued receipt of subsidized Venezuelan oil, which has now been withdrawn and probably will not be replaced by Chavez unless Honduras remains in his political orbit. No wonder my friend Irma is complaining about not being paid. The oil withdrawal and the suspension of much aid and loan money is leaving the interim government pretty strapped.

Another comment made by someone from the congregation was that Dr. Paul Farmer, the health provider whose work in Haiti is memorialized in Tracy Kidder’s book, will be nominated by Obama to head up USAID. I don’t know whether that is true, but it sounds like a good thing. He would shake that service up, no doubt. However, someone else told me that Farmer had visited Cuba and was amazed that no one at all there had complained about the health services, unlike the situation in neighboring countries, something he reportedly attributed to universal patient satisfaction and good care. Well, I have heard plenty of dissatisfaction expressed secretly, both by Cubans inside Cuba (including physicians) and by Cubans from the US visiting relatives there, often taking them bandages, disposable gloves, medications, and insulin—even aspirin. Many visitors praising the Cuban medical system—loudly touted as an achievement of the revolution—fail to understand that no Cuban is going to complain openly about anything if they value their freedom, especially not to a foreign visitor, no doubt being accompanied by government officials. Most visitors simply don’t get it. Things look normal—they seem normal—but outsiders don’t know how thoroughly Cubans have been socialized to censor themselves, even with each other.

Chavez and his associates may indeed have spread some largesse, mostly from oil wealth, to the poor, but the price a country has had to pay in terms of loss of personal liberty, press and human rights freedom, class warfare, and the inability to change leadership has been considerable. That’s what I hear from Venezuelan human rights advocates and journalists who, while not exactly poor, nonetheless have never been rich. That is why I hope Honduras will not go down that path, but will address income inequality and poverty by other than authoritarian means.

Meanwhile, so far, the Peace Corps is hanging in there in Honduras, but for how long is the question? After more than 40 years, it would be a shame to have volunteers depart, as, indeed, they have departed from Venezuela, although the Peace Corps is still operating in Nicaragua, even under Ortega.

The following articles indicate that perhaps Zelaya is not going to try to return to Honduras today, as had been threatened, and that both sides might come to an agreement after all. If so, Arias should get another Nobel prize!

Honduras crisis talks deadlocked over Zelaya return
By Ana Isabel Martinez and John McPhaul
Sunday, July 19, 2009 1:26 PM

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Talks to resolve Honduras' political crisis dragged into a second day on Sunday, with negotiators for deposed President Manuel Zelaya and coup leaders deadlocked over his proposed return to power.
A new session opened in Costa Rica after nearly 10 hours of closed-door meetings on Saturday failed to yield any kind of agreement.

Zelaya, a leftist, was ousted in a June 28 military coup, and the de facto government led by Roberto Micheletti has so far resisted all international pressure, refusing to accept any deal that includes Zelaya being restored to power.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is leading the U.S.-backed mediation efforts and has proposed that Zelaya be allowed to return to form a coalition government giving his rivals a share of power.

Micheletti's team flatly rejected Arias' proposals and although Zelaya agreed to them, a close aide said he would not allow coup leaders to join his government.
Zelaya has pledged to return to Honduras even if the talks fail, but the de facto government has said it will arrest him if he does and has put the army on high alert at key points across the country.

A previous attempt to land in the capital was blocked by the military and sparked violent clashes between his supporters and soldiers that left one protester dead.
The U.S. government is pushing for Zelaya's return to office but is worried that he could trigger more violence if he tries to go home without a negotiated settlement.
"We are indeed concerned about him going back," said a U.S. official, adding that Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon "is in practically daily contact with him, urging him to allow (the) Arias process to play out."

Honduras' army toppled Zelaya, whisking him out of the country on a plane on orders from the Supreme Court. Critics accused him of violating Honduras' constitution by seeking to extend presidential term limits. Zelaya had upset Honduras' business elite and moderates in his own Liberal party by veering to the left after taking office in 2006 and allying himself with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States.

Chavez was set to meet Zelaya in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on Sunday for an anniversary celebration of Nicaragua's leftist revolution where Zelaya's regional allies could ramp up threatening rhetoric. Soon after the coup, Chavez said he put his troops on alert.

Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating peace accords in Central America in the 1980s, and appealed to both sides of Honduras' crisis to be more flexible in the talks on Sunday to end the region's worst crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Micheletti's government hopes to stave off international demands for Zelaya's return until new elections but economic pressure could weaken its hold on power.
International port workers unions have called for a boycott of Honduran flagged ships in support of Zelaya, potentially hitting key coffee and textile exports from the impoverished country. Multinational lenders halted aid programs and the U.S. government suspended military cooperation after the coup.

The Organization of American States and the U.N. General Assembly have called for Zelaya's return to power and no foreign power has recognized the interim government.
Arias is proposing that Zelaya return to Honduras on July 24, [next Friday] according to a member of Zelaya's negotiating team. Zelaya supporters have kept up pressure inside the country by organizing protests nearly every day since his ouster.

On Sunday, they planned to march in the western town of Santa Barbara, a stronghold of Zelaya's Liberal Party.

July 19, 2009
Mediator Proposes Reinstating Honduran Leader
By ELISABETH MALKIN, New York Times, July 19, 2009

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — The mediator in talks seeking to break the deadlock between the deposed Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, and the de facto government that exiled him urged both sides on Saturday to agree to a plan that would return the ousted leader and grant a general amnesty for political offenses.

The seven points proposed by the mediator, President Óscar Arias of Costa Rica, during a second round of negotiations at his house in the capital, San José, would require the political elite of Honduras to recognize Mr. Zelaya as the country’s legitimate president, which they have yet to do. Rixi Moncada, a representative of Mr. Zelaya, said Mr. Arias proposed during the afternoon session that the ousted president be reinstated by Friday.

The two sides ended talks at 8:45 p.m. Saturday (10:45 p.m. Eastern time) and are to resume Sunday. The delegation for the de facto government asked for time to consult with officials in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Mr. Arias said that there were still many differences between the sides and that he had asked them to make one last effort to be flexible.

But there appeared to be signs of movement. As the talks ended for the day, Carlos López, a member of the delegation for the de facto government, said he hoped that Mr. Arias could announce good news on Sunday. Outside the negotiations, though, both sides took a combative stance, appearing to play to their hard-line supporters.
Mr. Zelaya promised to return to Honduras soon, in defiance of promises by the de facto government to arrest him.

The government of Roberto Micheletti, who was named president by Congress after the military forced Mr. Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica three weeks ago, threw up a raft of legal objections to the idea of letting him return under an amnesty. Although Mr. Arias’s plan would restore Mr. Zelaya, it would also sharply curtail his powers and focus much of the country’s political energy on an early presidential election.

Mr. Zelaya’s delegation nevertheless said it had agreed in principle to all seven points. But one of Mr. Micheletti’s negotiators, Vilma Morales, a former Supreme Court president, told local radio on Saturday that it was up to the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and election authorities to decide on most of the points.
As the talks went on, Mr. Zelaya, who was in neighboring Nicaragua, told Honduran radio that he might return home as soon as Monday. His wife, Xiomara Castro, leading protesters in Tegucigalpa on Saturday, said he would return within hours, “no matter the bayonets and machine guns” his supporters might face.

Those statements could heighten tensions in Honduras, which has been paralyzed by strikes and protests since the June 28 coup. Mr. Zelaya tried to fly into the Tegucigalpa airport two weeks ago on a small plane provided by the Venezuelan government, but military vehicles parked on the tarmac blocked his approach. One supporter was killed when soldiers pushed back those who had come to greet him.

As the talks began Saturday about 11 a.m., Mr. Arias warned both sides that Honduras was facing increasing isolation. Mr. Zelaya has been recognized as the legitimate president by the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Obama administration. The Arias proposal would move forward by a month the general election scheduled for the end of November. The military would be placed under the command of the electoral tribunal to prevent any attempt to meddle in the balloting.

Mr. Zelaya would also have to give up any attempt to rewrite the Constitution to remain in office. It was his insistence on holding a referendum to lay the groundwork for a new Constitution that precipitated his ouster. Mr. Arias’s plan would create a national unity government made up of members of all political parties until the new elected government took office, as scheduled, at the end of January. The proposal does not specify that any members of the Micheletti government would be included, which Mr. Zelaya has ruled out.

Mr. Arias’s proposal would also grant an amnesty for all political crimes both before and after the ouster of Mr. Zelaya. In his statement at the start of the negotiations, Mr. Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his role in negotiating Central American peace accords, spoke of the weight of history in a region where the overthrow of elected governments has frequently punctuated an uncertain transition to democracy. If an agreement was reached, “it would be the first time in Latin American history that a coup d’état is reversed by the will of both sides,” he said.

The Honduran coup has presented an unexpected test of Latin American policy for the Obama administration, which has thrown its support behind the mediation effort by Mr. Arias. The administration has also cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras since the coup and threatened to cut $180 million more in development aid.
Jesús Mora contributed reporting from San José, Costa Rica.

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