Thursday, July 16, 2009

Strikes, Insurrection Threatened, Curfew Re-imposed

Looking back to just a few months ago when I was in Honduras, I'm hopeful (but not necessarily optimistic) that the country can return to where it was then, with Cuban doctors working side-by-side with Peace Corps volunteers, as happened during my own service. Honduras has so many problems already, it cannot long endure serious political strife.

The longer the Honduras situation remains unresolved, the more unlikely it looks that Zelaya can return. And while doubts about him have grown since the start, doubts about Michelleti and his motives are also inevitably surfacing. Is he just a caretaker president thrust into office on an emergency basis by legitimate succession rules, or does he have power-grabbing ambitions of his own? It does seem that having power whets the appetite for more. Michelleti needs to avoid injecting himself into the presidential campaign, especially by supporting any presidential candidate, even from his own party. His offer now to step down as president is a welcome announcement (see articles below). By the way, Adolfo Facussé, a prominent businessman quoted below, and his wife have been big supporters of our medical brigades in Tegucigalpa.

If other members of the government saw how erraticly Zelaya was behaving back in January, as alleged in the Wall St. Journal article cited yesterday, why didn’t it occur to anyone to try to amend the constitution to include impeachment—or would that have been too controversial and obvious, provoking defensive action by Zelaya? In any case, as I’ve said before on these pages, there is no black and white here, no clear good and bad guys, as is too often the case in real life. We can always say “May the best man win,” but it’s not certain who the best man is in this case. Polls again show a deep divide (see blow), Barbara

Honduran interim leader: I'm willing to step down
By JUAN ZAMORANO, Associated Press
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 11:50 PM

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduras' interim leader said Wednesday he is willing to step down to help end his country's political crisis, but only if ousted President Manuel Zelaya isn't allowed to regain power. Roberto Micheletti also accused unspecified groups of handing out weapons and planning an armed rebellion, and his government reinstated an overnight curfew. The move came a day after Zelaya called for an insurrection in Honduras.

icheletti, the former congressional leader who was selected by lawmakers to serve out the final six months of Zelaya's term, presented the resignation offer as a means to end the nearly three-week standoff over Honduras' military-backed coup. The interim president said he was willing to leave office "if at some point that decision is needed to bring peace and tranquility to the country, but without the return, and I stress this, of former President Zelaya."

The offer was presented by a Honduran delegation to the Washington-based Organization of American States, Micheletti told reporters in Tegucigalpa. It was unclear if the OAS had received the proposal. Zelaya was not immediately available for comment, but the offer appeared unlikely to resolve the standoff over the June 28coup, in which soldiers seized Zelaya and hustled him out of the country on a plane.

Talks on ending the crisis are expected to resume Saturday in Costa Rica.
If Micheletti were to resign, under Honduran law the presidency would pass to Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera. The Supreme Court backed the coup.
Zelaya has insisted that he intends to return as president, saying that point is not open to negotiation. On Tuesday, he said Hondurans had a right to stage an insurrection against Micheletti's internationally isolated government. Asked about the possibility of an armed rebellion, Micheletti said: "I don't think we will get to that point. Our country is peaceful. I don't believe Hondurans will pick up arms to kill other Hondurans."

However, he charged that some people were trying to foment a rebellion. "This morning we were informed that they were handing out some guns," Micheletti said, without specifying who "they" were. A few hours later, Micheletti's administration announced in a broadcast statement that it was imposing a new midnight-5 a.m. curfew, calling it a response to "continuing and open threats by groups looking to provoke disturbances and disorder." It had imposed a nightly curfew after Zelaya's ouster, but lifted the order Sunday morning, saying it had succeeded in bringing calm to Honduras.

Micheletti, a member of Zelaya's own political party, was named by Congress to serve out the presidential term after Zelaya was accused of violating Honduran law by ignoring the courts and Congress in pressing ahead with plans for a constitutional referendum viewed by many as a power grab. Zelaya denies he was seeking to change the constitution so he could serve another term.

The interim president has threatened to jail Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who shifted to the left after being elected, if he comes back to Honduras. Demonstrations for Zelaya's return continued in Tegucigalpa on Wednesday and his supporters called for labor strikes. Labor leader Israel Salinas, one of the main figures in the pro-Zelaya movement, told thousands of demonstrators who marched through the capital that workers at state-owned companies plan walkouts later this week. He said protest organizers were talking with union leaders at private companies to see if they could mount a general strike against Micheletti. Salinas also said sympathetic unions in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador would try to block border crossings later this week "in solidarity with our struggle."

At the five-hour protest, tempers were high. Demonstrators threw rocks at a government building that houses the country's women’s institute. Police showed up but no injuries were reported. "We are going to install the constitutional assembly. We are going to burn the Congress," protest leader Miriam Miranda vowed.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is mediating talks aimed at resolving the impasse, but Zelaya has grown frustrated by the lack of progress. The talks are scheduled to resume Saturday after two earlier rounds failed to produce a breakthrough. Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending Central America's wars, has urged Zelaya to "be patient."

A Gallup survey in Honduras said Zelaya is more popular than Micheletti, but it also indicated a deeply divided nation. The nationwide survey made after Zelaya was exiled said 46 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Zelaya, while 30 percent had a similar view of Micheletti. Yet Zelaya was opposed by about the same proportion as his support - 44 percent - a figure not much different from the 49 percent who had negative feelings about Micheletti. The survey was taken June 30-July 4 and had a margin of error of three percentage points, according to CID-Gallup, which is based in Costa Rica.

In Deeply Split Honduran Society, a Potentially Combustible Situation

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- To many poor Hondurans, deposed president Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was a trailblazing ally who scrapped school tuitions, raised the minimum wage and took on big business. "He met with us -- the taxi drivers could go to the presidency and talk to him, the poor farmers, the women's groups," said Berta Cáceres, 38, an Indian rights activist who has been organizing pro-Zelaya rallies since his ouster last month. "The people liked him -- liked him because he said things they knew were true but that no other president had said before."

But among the country's small but influential establishment, what Zelaya did and said were cause for alarm. That sentiment fueled not just the military coup that removed the populist leader from power June 28 but also solidified the de facto government's now intractable stance against any effort to reinstate him.
"I don't want Mel Zelaya back in our country because of all the damage he did to our country," said Alan Licona, 42, an engineer who has rallied for the de facto government.

Licona said Zelaya had been taking Honduras on a socialist path similar to that of Venezuela, whose president is a close ally of Zelaya's.
"Honduras has lived in peace and democracy all these years," Licona said, "and we want to continue to live in peace and democracy."

The two diametrically opposed views underscore the deep divisions and simmering anger evident in Honduras, where those who support Zelaya are generally poor and those who oppose him tend to come from the middle and upper classes. That has created something of a powder keg here as Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, mediates talks between Zelaya and the de facto government.

The caretaker president, Roberto Micheletti, has said that November's presidential election could be moved up to defuse tensions but that his government considers Zelaya's ouster legal and non-negotiable. Zelaya has said that if the de facto government does not agree to reinstate him at the next round of talks Saturday, he will resort to "other measures" to find his way back to power. In Guatemala on Tuesday, he called for "an insurrection," and diplomats say more violence of the type that has left at least one protester dead is possible.

"I see a society profoundly polarized and divided," José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said this month. "Without a doubt, there is a division. There is lots of tension."

Honduras is one of the poorest and most inequitable countries in Latin America. A 2008 U.N. report on poverty and social exclusion in Latin America said seven of 10 Hondurans were living in poverty, the highest poverty rate among 18 countries surveyed.

They are people like the family of Isi Obed Murillo, a 19-year-old Zelaya supporter shot and killed by soldiers at a raucous rally at the Tegucigalpa airport when the deposed president tried to return from Washington to regain power.
Murillo's family members live in shabby hillside districts where streets are unpaved, roofs leak and hopes faded long ago. Rebeca Murillo, 22, said that she and her siblings saw the possibility of a new beginning with Zelaya -- and that that is why she, Isi and two other brothers went to the airport to rally for him. Gunfire then rang out, she said, and the next thing she recalls was seeing Isi's lifeless body. "Mel Zelaya wanted to improve things. He asked us what we wanted and what we did not want," she said. "What divides us here is money, and we saw Zelaya as the guy who could take us out of our misery."

Eduardo Maldonado, a popular television and radio commentator who supports Zelaya, said he thinks that the ousted president had been hoping to change the constitution to make it more inclusive. "The coffee exporters have congressmen, the bankers have congressmen, the fast-food interests have congressmen," Maldonado said. "That's why the country has been in these difficult conditions . . . because there is not a congress that permits people to participate."

Wealthier Hondurans opposed to Zelaya are easy to find in the capital, a world of glitzy shopping malls, Miami-style high-rises and broad avenues filled with so many American fast-food outlets -- expensive eating for the poor -- that they appear to have been plunked down from some U.S. suburb.

Adolfo Facussé, an investor long tied to government officials, said that although Zelaya's rhetoric resonated with the poor, his policies did little to help lift them out of poverty. Facussé said that raising the minimum monthly wage by 60 percent led to the firings of 170,000 people and that increasing the pay of teachers hit the treasury hard.

Facussé said he and other Hondurans also became alarmed as Zelaya built an alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that they thought was more ideological than economic. Facussé said the last straw came when Zelaya moved ahead with plans to hold a referendum that could have paved the way for his reelection, a move the Supreme Court and the National Congress opposed. "To us, Zelaya is Chávez, and we don't want Chávez here," Facussé said.

Political commentators, analysts and diplomats say Zelaya, whose family made its fortune from logging, remained friendly to some power brokers. But his drift to the left soon alarmed the conglomerates that own hydroelectric plants, the established media, coffee interests and the influential fast-food market.

The de facto government and its supporters say Zelaya's populist measures were designed to build support so he could manipulate the constitution and remain in power. But those who support him say he was justified in moving forward against the wishes of those whom Cáceres, the rights activist, called "the perfumed ones."
"He broke with those old schemes," she said. "That gave confidence to the people, that he broke with the traditional side and came closer and closer to the social movements."

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