Monday, September 28, 2009

More Turmoil

I spoke too soon yesterday, saying that things had settled down somewhat in Honduras. Today, after Zelaya’s call for his supporters to converge on the capital, it was back to chaos again. More repression and the interim government’s shutdown of opposing media outlets, though later Micheletti backed down and promised to restore them. (See articles below.) Though, if their equipment has been confiscated, what good will that do? Things to seem to have become very ugly; something has to give. Of course, this sort of strife is just what Micheletti wanted to avoid by keeping Zelaya out of the country. However, either his intelligence was faulty or segments of the military secretly cooperated with Zelaya.

A blog reader asks: What's the deal with Micheletti? Surely his own people pointed out months ago that the exile part was wrong; presumably Arias did, too. Yet he hasn't wavered. Apparently the decision to send Zelaya away was made in haste, but one must wonder by whom, and whether constitutional or other objections were raised at the time. It's beginning to look like government service, including national elective office, is not an area that attracts the best and the brightest in Honduras.

Some have questioned what the referendum was actually about. I don't know first-hand exactly what the referendum ballot said, nor have I read the Honduran constitution, but it supposedly was aimed at making constitutional changes in an unauthorized manner. I've relied on press reports, information from Hondurans and other sources, and the Congress Research Service report. The rest of the Honduran political establishment, including the supreme court, thought what Zelaya was doing was illegal and forbidden by the constitution, but, unless he submits to a judicial proceeding where all the evidence is presented and the fine print analyzed, we'll never know, assuming there could even be an independent proceeding at this point. We'll never know because it's not likely to ever get to that point. So, never mind the legalities and past mistakes on both sides, who said or did what to whom and when, let them sign an agreement now with guarantees (with outside unbiased monitors, if such exist), stop arguing, and get on with the election and back to normal life. This charade has gone on long enough. Zelaya is not going for a second term now, that seems obvious. In that respect, the political establishment has won out in the short term. Long term is harder to predict.

Neither side has conducted itself in a statesmanlike manner, but let's hope they’ve gained some political maturity in the process. However, given the strong feelings on both sides, I still say that it's surprising that more deaths and injuries have not occurred. This is a country where soccer patrons are killed leaving a game, where violent crime and vehicle accidents are epidemic, where marauding gangs descend on unsuspecting villagers. Of course, government forces should take more care to avoid injuring protesters and media censorship is unacceptable. The interim government has not acted wisely or well and has stubbornly dragged its feet, ignoring economic sanctions and worldwide condemnation.

But talk about double standards, Cuba, that Latin American beacon, has had no free elections, complete censorship, and a ban on unauthorized gatherings for more than 50 years; has executed and imprisoned countless thousands; and now has former government officials serving sentences of up to 25 years for daring to suggest another economic path. No voices have been raised about that. And Raul Castro, appearing in Managua with his arm around Zelaya, had the gall to admonish Honduras to re-instate its democratically elected president! No wonder the Honduran political establishment feels defensive! As volunteer Caribbean Coordinator for Amnesty International USA, I happen to have a greater knowledge than most people about human rights violations in Cuba, so that’s a double-standard I’m particularly sensitive about.

Someone sent me a Wall St. Journal column today that says that Lula and other Brazilian officials have argued that they have nothing to say about human rights violations and lack of free elections in Cuba because that would be interfering in that country's internal affairs, but Brazil apparently has no compunctions about intervening in Honduras's internal affairs. Hondurans are now telling me via e-mail that they're tired of the whole thing, that it has become a fight between two egoists. They just want it to stop!

Here is a long analysis and prediction from one of my commentators: I believe that Zelaya returned because he was afraid that if he did nothing, protests would die down and Micheletti would be able to run out the clock. He was convinced that this was the only way he had to try to force the de facto government into handing power over to him. He expected his presence in Tegucigalpa to increase public protests and that this would increase the possibility that the army would crack under the pressure and refuse to continue to repress the Honduran protesters. My gut feeling is that Micheletti is still confident that the army will not crack and will continue to repress the population and, as long as this is true, he simply will not accept Zelaya's return to power and will continue, as before, to try to run out the clock, to hold presidential elections, and hand over power to the winner. If this is not possible, he will try to hold out at least long enough so that if Zelaya returns to power, he will no longer have control over the army since it will have already passed to the Electoral Tribunal, under the terms of the Arias agreement.

I also believe that Micheletti is confident that if his army backing begins to slip, he will have sufficient warning to be able to accept to the Arias mediation proposal. Micheletti is confident of this since Zelaya has already voiced publicly his willingness to accept the Arias proposal. This leads Micheletti to believe that it is to his advantage to hold out for as long as he can, since he has the possibility to try to reach a better outcome by doing so and he is at least guaranteed the Arias mediating proposal if things do not work out.

But this, of course, places strain on the middle ranks of army officers who really do not give a damn who is president of Honduras and would like to continue their military careers and to live quietly in their own country without becoming unpopular with their countrymen. Many of them come from the poorest segments of Honduran society and have strong family and friendship links with a lot of Zelaya civilian supporters who would not favor the continued repression of popular protests. Also Zelaya probably returned to Honduras with the backing of at least a portion of the military.

Micheletti runs the danger that his support in the army and the police might give way suddenly without any advance notice and not give him time to negotiate his acceptance of the Arias proposals with his opponents. Thus, if the timing of Micheletti or his top military supporters is off, there could be very dangerous consequences for all of them and for their families and possessions. In the face of a neutral or hostile military and police, he and his supporters might suddenly have to run for their lives into embassies or foreign countries to avoid being lynched by hostile mobs. In my view, by returning to Honduras, Zelaya regained his momentum and has significantly bettered his chances to regain the presidency,

If the army splits and part of it supports Zelaya while the rest backs Micheletti, the situation could even erupt into a civil war that would eventually require an OAS-commanded foreign military intervention to re-establish peace and carry out a transparent, impartial presidential election. But whatever, the immediate result, I continue to believe that the actions of Micheletti and the Honduran oligarchy have made Zelaya a political martyr and the most influential political figure in Honduras for the rest of his life.

Whatever may happen in the next few months, if Zelaya lives long enough, he is destined to one day return to the Honduran presidency and to carry out changes that will alter the future of this former Central American backwater. All of a sudden, quiet little Honduras has been plunged into political turmoil and has awakened from feudalism. Things have begun to move and Honduras will never be the same again!

Soldiers raid Honduran media outlets
By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer, Sept. 28, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' coup-installed government silenced two key dissident broadcasters on Monday just hours after it suspended civil liberties to prevent an uprising by backers of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Dozens of soldiers raided the offices of Radio Globo. Officials also shut down Channel 36 television station, leaving it broadcasting only a test pattern.

Rene Zepeda, a spokesman for the interim government, said the two outlets had been taken off the air in accordance with a government emergency decree announced late Sunday that limits civil liberties and allows authorities to close news media that "attack peace and public order."

Supporters of the deposed leftist president vowed to march in the streets Monday in defiance of the emergency order and carry out what Zelaya calls a "final offensive" against his ouster on the three-month anniversary of the coup. "They took away all the equipment. This is the death of the station," said Radio Globo owner Alejandro Villatoro, describing the dawn raid on the station. Station employees scrambled out of an emergency exit to escape the raid that Villatoro said involved as many as 200 soldiers. He said the office remained surrounded by soldiers. It was the second time soldiers have barged into the station — the first was June 28, the same day Zelaya was ousted.

The interim government has long argued it is trying to preserve democracy in Honduras, and even cited the fact that pro-Zelaya media such as Channel 36 were operating freely as proof. But the emergency decree showed a tough new stance domestically and internationally, a reversal from last week, when interim President Roberto Micheletti indicated his administration was willing to hold talks with Zelaya, who has taken shelter at the Brazilian Embassy after sneaking into the country a week ago.

The Organization of American States in Washington called a high-level emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the Honduras crisis after the interim government expelled at most members of an OAS advance team that had arrived Sunday to try to restart negotiations. Micheletti's Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez said the team had not given advance warning of its arrival and said it did not come "at the right time ... because we are in the middle of internal conversations."

Officials also issued an ultimatum to Brazil on Sunday, giving the South American country 10 days to turn Zelaya over for arrest or grant him asylum and, presumably, take him out of Honduras. Lopez said Brazil had broken relations by withdrawing its ambassador and said if it does not restore ties, the diplomatic mission would become a private office — implying it could be raided by police.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva responded, saying that his government "doesn't accept ultimatums from coup-plotters." Micheletti has pledged not to raid the embassy where Zelaya has been holed up with more than 60 supporters. The building is surrounded by armed police and soldiers, who have been there since baton-wielding troops used tear gas and water cannons to chase away thousands of his backers when he returned to the country Sept. 21. Protesters say at least 10 people have been killed since the coup, while the government puts the toll at three.

The government's suspension of civil liberties limits rights guaranteed in the Honduran Constitution: The decree prohibits unauthorized gatherings and allows police to arrest without a warrant "any person who poses a danger to his own life or those of others." It also allows officials to shut down media outlets for "statements that attack peace and the public order, or which offend the human dignity of public officials, or attack the law." The Honduran Constitution forbids arrests without warrants except when a criminal is caught in the act.

In a nationally broadcast announcement, the government explained it took the steps it did "due to the calls for insurrection that Mr. Zelaya has publicly made." Zelaya is demanding to be reinstated and has said that Micheletti's government "has to fall."

While many nations have announced they would send diplomatic representatives back to Honduras to support negotiations, the interim government said Sunday that it would not automatically accept ambassadors back from some nations that withdrew their envoys.

Coup-installed Honduras leader to revive liberties
Associated Press, September 28, 2009 7:34 PM EDT

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - The coup-installed president of Honduras backed down Monday from an escalating standoff with protesters and suggested he would restore civil liberties and reopen dissident television and radio stations by the end of the week. Riot police ringed supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya who gathered for a large-scale protest march, setting off a daylong standoff. The government of interim President Roberto Micheletti declared the march illegal, sent soldiers to silence dissident broadcasters, and suspended civil liberties for 45 days.

But in a sudden reversal, Micheletti said Monday afternoon that he wanted to "ask the Honduran people for forgiveness" for the measures and said he would lift them in accordance with demands from the same Congress that installed him after a June 28 coup. He said he would discuss lifting the measures with court officials "as soon as possible," adding: "By the end of this week we'll have this resolved." He also repeated his pledge not to attack the Brazilian Embassy, where Zelaya has been holed up with 60 supporters since sneaking back into the country on Sept. 21. He even sent "a big hug" to Brazil's president, a day after giving him a 10-day ultimatum to expel Zelaya or move him to Brazil.

The increasingly authoritarian measures by the government had prompted international condemnation, though the U.S. representative to the Organization of American States also had harsh words for Zelaya, calling his return to Honduras "irresponsible and foolish." The Micheletti government says Zelaya supporters are planning a violent insurrection. So far, protests have seen little bloodshed - the government says three people have been killed since the coup, while protesters put the number at 10. Protest leader Juan Barahona said that could change."This mass movement is peaceful, but to the extent they repress us, fence us in and make this method useless, we have to find some other form of struggle," he said.

Micheletti made clear that even if the emergency measures are lifted, "that doesn't mean the police are going back to barracks." Monday's march drew hundreds of people, many of whom covered their mouths with tape to protest government censorship. Protest leaders insisted that thousands more were trying to join but were stopped from leaving poorer neighborhoods or from traveling from the countryside."There is brutal repression against the people," Zelaya told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday.

The emergency decree issued Sunday bans unauthorized gatherings and lets police arrest people without warrants, rights guaranteed in the Honduran Constitution. It also allows authorities to shut news media for "statements that attack peace and the public order, or which offend the human dignity of public officials, or attack the law." In late afternoon, police allowed the protesters to board buses and leave.
Government soldiers raided the offices of Radio Globo and the television station Channel 36, both critics of the Micheletti government, and silenced both. Afterward, the TV station broadcast only a test pattern. Radio Globo employees scrambled out of an emergency exit to escape the raid that involved as many as 200 soldiers. "They took away all the equipment," said owner Alejandro Villatoro. "This is the death of the station."

Two journalists covering the raid for Mexico's Televisa and Guatemala's Guatevision were beaten by security forces, who also took their camera, according to Guatemala's ambassador to the Organization of American States, Jorge Skinner. He asked the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission to intervene.

The OAS held an emergency meeting in Washington on Monday after Honduras expelled members of an OAS advance team trying to restart negotiations between the two sides. Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez said the team had not given advance notice of its arrival. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley condemned the expulsion. "I think it's time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel," he said. "With every action they keep on making the hole deeper."

Lew Amselem, the U.S. representative to the OAS, also condemned the expulsion as "deplorable and foolish." But had equally harsh words for Zelaya. He said returning without an agreement "serves neither the interests of the Honduran people nor those seeking the peaceful reestablishment of the democratic order in Honduras." He added: "Those who facilitated President Zelaya's return ... have a special responsibility for the prevention of violence and the well-being of the Honduran people." He did not say to whom he was referring.

The increasingly authoritarian actions by the interim government signaled an abrupt shift in strategy after appealing for foreign support and arguing it ousted Zelaya to preserve democracy. Only last week, Micheletti argued in a letter to the Washington Post that his government was not a coup, citing as evidence that freedom assembly was still allowed: "They do not guarantee freedom of the press, much less a respect for human rights. In Honduras, these freedoms remain intact and vibrant." He argued that the international community will have no choice but to recognize a Nov. 29 vote - "the ultimate civil exercise of any democracy - a free and open presidential election."

Zelaya supporters noted that the emergency decree effectively outlawed any campaigning until two weeks before election day. "If they can't campaign ... what happens then to the electoral solution?" asked protest leader Rafael Alegria.
Analysts called the shift a sign that the Micheletti government is feeling increasingly threatened. "It certainly shows that they're worried that Zelaya might be able to disrupt the government," said Heather Berkman, a Honduras expert with the New York-based Eurasia Group. "Zelaya's only recourse really is to mobilize people on the streets. I'm sure that Micheletti and the government know that and they're going to do whatever they can to prevent that." She called it a risky move: "They're damaging their own credibility, and really hurting the economy."

September 28, 2009
Honduras Bars Diplomats as Political Crisis Grows

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The de facto government of Honduras expelled four diplomats from the Organization of American States on Sunday and threatened to shut down the Brazilian Embassy, where the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, has been holed up for a week. In a sign of rising tension, the government issued a decree Sunday that banned unauthorized gatherings and allowed the authorities to shut down broadcasters and arrest anyone deemed to pose a threat to their lives and that of others.
The diplomats were members of an advance team planning a visit of foreign ministers from member countries to try to negotiate an end to the political crisis here. The organization had been invited by the de facto government to hold talks here, then disinvited, and invited again before being turned back at the airport on Sunday. Carlos López Contreras, the foreign minister of the de facto government, said Sunday that the group had arrived before the government said it could. “They fell on us by surprise,” he said. A fifth member of the team, John Biehl of Chile, was allowed to stay, Mr. López said, because he was a key player in the Honduran crisis mediation in Costa Rica.

In Washington, José Miguel Insulza, the O.A.S. secretary general, said the expulsion was “incomprehensible, since it was the very same de facto government of Honduras that had agreed to the visit.” The O.A.S. permanent council will meet Monday to discuss the situation.

The government also gave Brazil a 10-day deadline to either grant Mr. Zelaya political asylum or hand him over for trial on a catalog of charges including treason and abuse of authority. Mr. López said that if Brazil did not comply within 10 days, the embassy would lose its diplomatic status. “As a courtesy, we are not planning to invade the place,” he added.

The government’s actions on Sunday, ostensibly aimed at keeping its grip on power, seemed to highlight its increasing isolation as the interim president, Roberto Micheletti, appears to lurch between hard-line stances and offers to negotiate.
The Brazilian government brushed off the threat against its embassy. “Brazil will not comply with an ultimatum from a government of coup-mongers,” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told reporters on Sunday at a meeting in Venezuela. He had previously said that Mr. Zelaya could remain in the embassy as long as was necessary.

The Micheletti government also seemed to be moving toward breaking relations with Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela. In a statement on Saturday, it said that ambassadors from those countries were not welcome back unless those countries recognized its representatives. The government statement told diplomats from those four countries who are in Honduras to turn in their credentials and leave their embassies.

Mr. Zelaya has been living at the Brazilian Embassy with about 65 family members, supporters and journalists since he secretly returned to Honduras last Monday. Mr. Micheletti has said that Honduran troops, which have cut off the area around the embassy, will not raid the compound.

Mr. Zelaya’s stance has also been erratic. His cellphone calls, broadcast on sympathetic stations, swing between calls for peaceful protest and cries like “Restitution or death!”

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