Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, Honduran Election Day Approaches, Will Zelaya Pull Any Surprises?

Matters are getting rather murky in Honduras, but maybe after Nov. 29, the aid will start flowing again. It doesn't look very hopeful for Zelaya to be restored to office and even if he is, it will be kind of anti-climatic at this point. While he cannot stay living forever with his entourage in the Brazilian Embassy, if he comes out, whether as president or not, his life and liberty may be in danger. He might do best to make a clandestine exit from the country just as he entered.
As the Nov. 29 election day approaches, the blog Democracia Participativa reports that Zelaya supporters are gathering to “peacefully disrupt” the voting process. That sounds a bit contradictory and ominous. No doubt, injuries and death will occur. The same blog reports that the OAS is unsure how to regard the election, while the US is supporting it, it seems, as “part of the democratic process.” Yet, according to most reports, neither US nor OAS observers will be present, although there will some from Europe. (See AP article below, that US observers will be there.)

Excerpts from a longer (!) message just in from our erstwhile Latin American correspondent: Politics moves in waves or cycles and, if he plays his cards right, Zelaya's popular support might very well propel him to power in some future Honduran political crisis. However, I have my doubts whether he will eventually achieve this. He seems to have some charisma but not a great deal of political intelligence. On a scale of political intelligence between 1 and 10, 1 being Hugo Chavez and 10 Fidel Castro, I would give him no more than a two or a three. Certainly his negotiations with Micheletti did not show him to be very cunning. Micheletti outfoxed him at every turn. However, whatever his political intelligence, he is, at present, a definite threat to the Honduran oligarchy and will be dealt with as such as long as his political popularity continues among the Honduran populace.

The probability that he could have success if he comes to power again will depend, among other things, on Honduras’s future economic growth and the continuation in power of Hugo Chavez and in his ability to provide Zelaya with economic aid which would in turn depend on the price of oil. Since Chavez continues to ravage the Venezuelan economy with his mismanagement and to lose popular support because of his lack of fulfillment of his populist promises, Chavez might very well not be around to pick up the tab if Zelaya is ever returned to power. Moreover, even if he is around, the existing price of oil might not allow him to provide Zelaya with the volume of aid that he was receiving before June 28.

However, one should not lose sight of the possibility, that, in keeping with Zelaya's larger than life personality, just before, during or after the elections, Zelaya would voluntarily decide to leave the Brazilian Embassy in a desperate gesture to dramatize his opposition to the whole situation and to become even more of a political martyr in the eyes of the world and the Honduran population. The best moment to do so would, of course be on November 28, one day before the elections, to be able to disrupt them and promote abstensionism but there could be political advantages to doing so at any moment afterward to force the oligarchy to jail him and try him and thus keep his presence on the public eye. Of course, his enemies could seize the opportunity to assassinate him and get rid of a threat to their rule, but on the eve of an election with the country full of international inspectors to vouch for the transparency of the process and the desire of the authorities to minimize for the moment human rights violations this would be highly improbable.

So this would be the most favorable moment for Zelaya to pull a stunt like getting into the trunk of the Brazilian Ambassador's car and being dropped off in the main public square of Tegucigalpa. At any event, take due notice that Zelaya is proud, persistent and feels sufficiently victimized to try to pull off a stunt like that to make a brave gesture to the world and try to recover his wounded honor. In a macho Hispanic culture like Honduras, such dramatic behavior is expected from people who feel their honor has been slighted and want to uphold their manliness!

Here is my own reply: I quite agree that Zelaya is not the brightest bulb, but probably more so than Chavez, who acts like an elephant in a China shop. Zelaya has lost popularity, but still has a strong core of supporters who are already gathering, heeding his call to "peacefully disrupt" the upcoming election. The presidential candidates have avoided mention of the Zelaya matter, but I've noticed they are talking more now about confronting the needs of the poor. The OAS seems less than unified about what to do about Honduras and how to treat the election there. It's hard to completely disparage a voting process.

As for assassination, if Zelaya suddenly emerges from the Brazilian embassy, that's certainly a risk and not just from his political enemies. Many Hondurans carry personal firearms (the NRA would love them) and shoot from the hip. The murder rate there is more than 20 times that in the US, which is already twice that of most developed countries. More than 7,000 are murdered annually in that country of 7+ million and that's probably an undercount. Among recent victims have been two officials of presidential front-runner Lobo's Nationalist Party and Micheletti's own nephew. Murders happen there every day. Rural residents make their own firearms that shoot one homemade bullet at a time and have to be reloaded. Sometimes clandestine graves containing several bodies are found although no one had reported the victims missing. Zelaya's own father murdered squatters on his property, found in mass graves after his death. So Zelaya knows the risks. If he should emerge from the embassy the day before the election, the interim government folks had better rush to protect his life.

Speculating on whether Honduras will enjoy substantial economic growth in the foreseeable future, that's highly unlikely. It will be hard even to make up the ground lost during this whole political battle and the withdrawal of outside aid. Remittances are down and potential outside investors are likely to shy away because of the political instability. The populace is uneducated and corruption is high. During the last 50 years, Honduras has been at the bottom of the economic heap. It would take a long time to overcome that situation. In that respect, Zelaya's appeal to the poor (the majority) may be to his advantage initially, but when he is unable to meet their expectations, they may turn against him, as is happening in Venezuela now, according to my contacts there, though, at that point, repression is increased, just as Chavez is increasing it now. Not a pretty scenario for the future of Honduras. But neither is the status quo.

If Zelaya does make a surprise emergence from the embassy, you will have predicted it first! Of course, he may also make a clandestine exit from the country, just as he entered it, rather than spends the rest of his days as a hostage in the embassy. Until now, I suspect, the Brazilian Embassy in Teguc was a fairly low-level posting, with the ambassador mostly concerned with diplomatic encounters and ceremonial activities. I've walked by its guarded entrance many times and never noticed any particular commotion. All that has changed.

The AP article below reports that US observers will be at the upcoming election. I have tried mightily to find whether and who might be going and, until now, the word has always been: no US observers. But maybe some State Dept. folks were drafted at the last minute? In any case, at this late date, I won't be joining them.

Hope everyone out there has a good holiday. Thanksgiving puts me in mind of how we volunteers would get together to recreate a feast not celebrated in Honduras. We each brought something, not always a traditional Thanksgiving food. The turkey was often the hardest item to find and cook. But there was a real sense of camaraderie as we shared our meal and waxed nostalgic for “home” on that most iconic of American holidays.

Honduras vote to sideline president, enshrine coup
Associated Press
Wednesday, November 25, 2009 3:47 PM

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Sunday's election will likely accomplish what the plotters of a coup set out to do five months ago: end the political career of leftist President Manuel Zelaya and replace him with a more moderate leader from Honduras' establishment. And Washington, which had vowed not to recognize the elections unless Zelaya was reinstated, now appears to have decided it has few options but to do exactly that.

"In the end, the coup won," said Heather Beckman, a Latin America analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group. "It was a bad thing and it shouldn't have happened, but in the end there wasn't anything anyone could do."

Millions of poor Hondurans drew hope from Zelaya's left-leaning policies in a nation long ruled by a wealthy elite. But they now have no presidential candidate to represent them; the only one who backed Zelaya dropped out of the race last month with little support, saying his participation would condone the coup. The leading candidates belong to the two main parties that voted overwhelmingly in Congress to support Zelaya's ouster - including the one that got him elected before turning against him.

Zelaya, flown into exile by soldiers on June 28, slipped back into the country three months later and has since been holed up at the Brazilian Embassy. His term ends in January, and the constitution bars him from running again. At first, President Barack Obama strongly condemned the coup, the first in Central America in more than two decades, and said the United States wouldn't recognize any elections conducted under the coup-installed government.

But his administration, eager to restore development aid and anti-drug cooperation with its old ally, has more recently signaled it will support the new government. Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Monday that the United States will send observers to ensure the election is free and fair. "This is an electoral process that follows the normal electoral calendar under the Honduran constitution, and it had been under way for several months prior to the coup," he said, adding: "This was not an election invented by a de facto government in search of an exit strategy or as a means to whitewash a coup d'etat."

Valenzuela did not promise recognition of the vote, but his statement constituted a victory for interim President Roberto Micheletti, who has endured months of diplomatic isolation and sanctions since taking office. Micheletti has argued that the elections would show the world that democracy is intact in Honduras.
On Wednesday, about 2,000 Micheletti supporters marched in the capital to encourage people to vote. Demonstrators said they believe Sunday's ballot will end the crisis. "I have faith that the elections will be the end of the problem that Zelaya got us into," said Ana Castellanos, 26.

Zelaya wrote to Obama asking why Washington appeared to be changing its position, and called on Latin America's leaders "not to adopt ambiguous or imprecise positions like the one shown now by the United States." Many left-led governments in Latin America insist recognizing the vote is tantamount to legitimizing the coup. "We find it regrettable anyone would want to cleanse a coup d'etat with an election process conducted in a country that has virtually been in a state of siege these past months," Marco Aurelio Garcia, chief international adviser to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said Tuesday of the U.S. stance.

Many Hondurans simply want to go to the polls and put the crisis behind them. But others are boycotting to protest the months of strife, which saw the jailing of pro-Zelaya protesters and the occasional shutdown of anti-government radio and television stations. "I have no intention of voting," said shop owner German Lagos, 36. "The elections will serve only to legitimize this coup."

The two leading contenders - Porfirio Lobo of the National Party and Elvin Santos of Zelaya's own Liberal Party - fought against Zelaya's campaign to change the constitution, fearing he planned to follow in the footsteps of his close ally Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and lift a ban on presidential re-election. Zelaya has said repeatedly that was not his intention. Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005, is benefiting from the Liberal Party's divisions over Zelaya's ouster. A wealthy businessman who favors jeans and cowboy boots on the campaign trail, Lobo campaigned as a hard-line conservative in favor of the death penalty in 2005 in this country beset by gang violence.

This time around, he has softened his tone, saying at a recent rally: "If we want foreign investment and tourists, then let's walk in peace."

Santos, a civil engineer who was Zelaya's vice president until resigning last year to run for president, has criticized the military's decision to exile Zelaya but not called for his restoration. Zelaya supporters consider Santos a traitor.

A U.S.-brokered pact signed by Zelaya and Micheletti last month left Zelaya's reinstatement up to the Honduran Congress. Zelaya predicted he would be back in power in a week. But Congress remained quiet until last week, when leaders said they would take up the matter Dec. 2. "It was slap in the face of the international community, to the United States," said Manuel Orozco, a Central America expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. But in the end, the United States "allowed the pragmatic approach to prevail," he said. "They wanted a swift resolution in order to prevent greater instability in Honduras."

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