Sunday, November 29, 2009

Obamas Attend Local College Basketball Game, Honduran Election Day Arrives

Yesterday, Saturday, my only current housemate, internationally renowned water and sanitation expert Rochelle, went to a basketball game at George Washington University because the team from Oregon State, her home state, was playing. She also had a hunch, or had heard a rumor, that the First Family would be attending and she was right! There they all were, Barak, Michelle, the girls, and Grandma. And Oregon State won. Today, she left for Liberia. Rochelle does get around.

Every morning when I turn on the radio or scan the headlines online, I brace myself for hearing something terrible about Honduras, like that Zelaya, Micheletti, or Lobo has been murdered or that bloody clashes are underway between the army and election protesters. It’s always a relief when things are calm. If I feel anxious at this distance, imagine how Hondurans actually living in such a precarious situation feel. It’s also hard not to have sympathy for Zelaya supporters when it looked like their guy was going to be restored to office, then wasn’t, and their hopes were dashed. The streets of Honduras were reported to be calm ever since polls opened at 7am with a light, steady stream of voters, though no crowds or demonstrators. Last presidential election, 56% of eligible voters cast ballots. We’ll see this time if Zelaya’s call for an election boycott cuts substantially into that percentage. This whole matter has gotten so complicated now that it's up to Hondurans to decide. Of course, a small turnout will present a problem for the victor and for the US and international community as well.

Zelaya did not emerge suddenly from his refuge, as my Latin American correspondent speculated might happen. He may be planning some other strategy before or after the congress rules on his case on Dec. 2. Supposedly, Zelaya has Brazilian and other Latin American advisers, but they don’t seem to be advising him particularly well. Nor has he shown himself to be particularly statesmanlike by reaching out to his opponents to resolve the issue. Maybe he has been advised to hang tight and not to yield. In the short run, at least, his tactics do not seem to have been very successful. He certainly didn’t seem like a team player when he was president and he doesn’t now either, even when it would be to his advantage. Let’s see if today’s victor, presumably Lobo, is anymore skillful. I do anticipate a heavy interpretation schedule this week and may not have time to post the results and aftermath of the election immediately, so please watch the news.

Here, again, is my Latin American correspondent, whom I won’t identify further except that he is not Honduran and, obviously, has an excellent command of English and a unique manner of expression. Like I told you before, I do not consider Zelaya to be very intelligent politically nor for that matter very charismatic or radical and he may very well do a favor for the future leftist movement by dying at the right time instead of continuing to live on and eventually disappoint all the people who have placed their faith on him! If Shakespeare was right and all of life is a theater and all human beings actors, then the greatest gift of a failed politician like Zelaya might be to have enough timing to know when to make his exit from the stage and to make it in the grandest style possible. It would be anti-climatic for him to merely fade away and totally fail to live up to the hopes of his followers, causing a great damage to the political movement that he says he supports. In the next couple of days we will know whether he possesses this gift or whether he is just a political opportunist!

I do not want to make overzealous demands on him, but I believe that, unfortunately, the only way he can redeem himself in the eyes of his followers is to perish at the hands of the military leading a popular protest against the coming elections. Politics is cruel and, sadly, the only way a failed Latin American politician can preserve his status as a leader before his cynical followers is by rising above his fears and willingly assuming the role of a martyr to at least preserve his dignity when all else is lost! Right now Zelaya must be facing the toughest moment in his life since he must decide "To be or not to be!" or, put another way, whether to die as a hero or to live on as a loser!

I’m told that in the current issue of the New Yorker (Nov. 30, my copy hasn’t arrived yet), William Finnegan has written an article entitled, “An Old-Fashioned Coup.” To him, it's a straight-up illegal coup, no gray about it. He reportedly has spoken with Zelaya and quotes Arias as saying that the Honduran constitution is "the worst in the world." I wonder what Finnegan would have to say now about Arias's declaration that Costa Rica will support the Honduran election outcome, as mentioned in my last blog? That must have been a real blow to Zelaya’s forces, causing them to brand him as either a turncoat or a dishonest broker in his mediating efforts. Although I haven’t read the article and actually seen the evidence presented, I disagree that it really is an old-fashioned coup—it’s not a military government, a pre-planned presidential election is taking place on schedule, and Zelaya was acting demagogically, ignoring warnings and objections. On the other hand, he was duly elected and what happened to him was not business as usual. But just labeling Zelaya’s removal “an old-fashioned coup” doesn’t make it so. If it really was a coup at all, it was certainly a very different animal from past coups. We’ll see what kind of political leader Lobo turns out to be. He has a delicate and very tough job ahead, keeping the peace without being too heavy-handed and regaining the trust of both the Honduran people and the world. .

When I go to Honduras in Feb., Primero Dios (God willing), I’ll try to do some fact-checking, like on the 200 soldiers that Finnegan reportedly asserts arrested Zelaya. It's possible that the oligarchs, as my Latin American correspondent calls them, had been plotting to get rid of Zelaya for a while because of his Chavez connections and because they thought he was going too far (for example, raising the minimum wage 60% all at once) and that he then simply provided them with a convenient excuse by deciding to launch the referendum.

Here is our Latin American commentator’s reaction to the following article: The Obama administration was simultaneously trying to show some token commitment with the pro-democracy goal of the OAS to stop military coup d'etats from reoccurring in Latin America and at the same time not trying to take effective diplomatic and economic sanctions that would have brought Zelaya back to power because it feared Republican criticism that it had gone soft on communism during the midterm elections. This and other matters where Obama has been overcautious are already helping to give him a reputation of being an indecisive, flip flopping, do-nothing president which certainly will not aid his party or him in conducting their foreign policy or at the polls.

Here’s my reply to him: Is Obama just a pragmatist and a conciliator, or is he, as you, allege, overcautious and a flip-flopper? Being a political leader is challenging, not something most of us are capable of. G W Bush stuck to his guns, even when the facts negated them, such as about Iraq and the WMDs. I think I prefer nuanced politics, but, you are right, many Latin American leaders don't understand nuance and are angry and disappointed.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Honduras holds election, hopes to emerge from political turmoil
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA -- This Central American country held presidential elections on Sunday in a bid to regain international legitimacy after a coup that has rattled the hemisphere and frustrated the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with Latin America. The U.S. government is hoping the elections will help resolve the crisis that exploded when the Honduran military detained President Manuel Zelaya on June 28. But most nations in the region have declared they will not recognize the winner, saying that would ratify the coup.

Turnout appeared light Sunday morning at some polling stations in poor neighborhoods, but voters lined up in working-class and middle-class areas. Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy since sneaking back into the country two months ago, has called for a boycott of the vote.
Fearing violence, Honduran authorities deployed thousands of soldiers and police to guard the polls. Pickup trucks filled with camouflage-clad soldiers clutching AK-47 rifles or manning machine guns cruised the capital, but no major incidents were reported. "We are so anxious for this all end," said Rosa Maria Flores, 62, a teacher, referring to the crisis that has gripped the country. She was casting a ballot at a school in the working-class Kennedy neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, which was crowded with voters.

In the impoverished hillside neighborhood of San Francisco, where skinny dogs and chickens roamed the dirt streets, only a trickle of voters turned up Sunday morning. Naun Argijo, 21, said his family of 10, which shares a two-room shack, would not vote because they were upset over Zelaya's ouster. "He was the only president who looked out for poor people," said Argijo.

The political crisis in this tiny, coffee-exporting country has divided Honduras and exposed the ineffectiveness of U.S. and international pressure to preserve democracy in a poor region long marked by strongman governments, analysts say. Despite the personal involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two American-brokered accords aimed at reversing the coup have unraveled. The Obama administration now finds itself accused by regional allies like Brazil of abandoning its commitment to democracy for a more pragmatic solution. "This will leave a bad aftertaste in people's mouths, the way the U.S., rightly or wrongly, rushed to condemn the coup, then for its own reasons, tried to backpeddle," said Chris Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas business group. "It will make the U.S. less of a trustworthy partner diplomatically."

U.S. officials say they have little choice but to recognize the long-planned election -- assuming it is fair -- as part of a solution to the crisis in this longtime American ally. "What are we going to do, sit for four years and just condemn the coup?" a senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington recently, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sunday's vote will almost certainly end a brief spell of left-wing populism in the Honduran government, with the two leading presidential candidates both prosperous businessmen with centrist platforms. Neither Zelaya nor the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, is on the ballot. The leading candidates are Porfirio Lobo, of the National Party, and Elvin Santos, of Zelaya's Liberal Party. Both oppose Zelaya.
But the country's deep polarization is likely to continue. Spidery black graffiti covers the walls of squat pastel-painted buildings around this mountainous capital, reading "We don't want coups!" and "The people demand their rights." Several small, crude bombs have exploded at state institutions and media supportive of the de facto government in recent days. No one was harmed.

On Friday night, soldiers shot at a car that drove past a security post onto a public road near a military installation in Tegucigalpa, hitting the 32-year-old driver in the head and causing his vehicle to crash into several bystanders, who were also injured, according to a news release from Amnesty International. A call to the military spokesman was not immediately returned.

The Honduran military detained Zelaya after he tried to hold a referendum that many feared was aimed at illegally extending his rule beyond the one-term limit. The wealthy rancher had increasingly alienated his country's political parties, the Catholic Church and the business community with his growing ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the leader of an anti-U.S. leftist alliance in Latin America.
Even before Zelaya's ouster, U.S. diplomats had discouraged a series of coup plots in Honduras. But when Zelaya fired the military leadership in June for refusing to help carry out his referendum, the generals gave the go-ahead to remove him, U.S. officials say. Acting on an arrest warrant from the Supreme Court, 200 soldiers stormed the presidential residence and bundled Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica.

The Obama administration initially condemned the action, seeking to burnish its democratic credentials in a region with harsh memories of U.S.-backed coups. It cut millions of dollars in aid and threatened to withhold U.S. recognition of the election unless the de facto government signed accords that would restore Zelaya with limited powers. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in September that the de facto regime was in a box -- "and they will have to sign on to the . . . accords to get out of the box."

But in the end, the United States proved to be in the box. The Micheletti government refused to sign the accords, and a subsequent agreement has stalled. Micheletti and his allies reached out for support to Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who held up critical diplomatic appointments to protest U.S. backing for the reinstatement of a Chávez ally.

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank, said the legislative move undermined U.S. decision-making, which also seemed to lack authoritative direction. "At times, no one seemed to hold the reins on a day-to-day basis," he said.

U.S. diplomats are hoping the presidential election will produce a winner motivated to negotiate with the Zelaya camp in hopes of winning international recognition. The Honduran National Congress is scheduled to debate Wednesday whether to allow Zelaya to finish the final two months of his term, acting under an Oct. 30 agreement between him and Micheletti. But many politicians here doubt that Congress will approve his return. "Our preference is obviously that the Congress restore Zelaya," U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens told reporters Friday. The newly elected government, he said, "will have a vested interest the Micheletti government didn't have to engage with the international community."
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------November 29, 2009
Weary of Political Crisis, Honduras Holds Election

TEGUCIGALPA — Rony Gómez will stay home when Hondurans go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, five months after the military and Congress ousted the last one. “I won’t vote,” he said. “It would be endorsing the coup.” The question is how many Hondurans feel like Mr. Gómez, a 40-year-old street vendor and former soldier. Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president, condemns the elections as illegal, and predicts a low turnout that will show that he still enjoys popular support.

But the de facto government that has run the country since the coup last summer argues that the elections — scheduled long before the country’s turmoil began — are the only way to end the political crisis and move on. A large turnout would prove that most Hondurans agree. Many people here, weary of what they refer to as “the situation,” and worried as the economy spirals downward, say they do plan to vote. “That’s how the transition starts,” said Moisés Bados Castellano, 67, a retired accountant and farmer. “We need democracy in this country.”

In the final days before the vote, the streets here were calm. Campaigning stopped at the end of last week and there was barely an election poster visible by this weekend. The flags and bunting that usually wrap the city’s buildings and cars in the colors of the two leading parties before elections were also absent. The two leading candidates began running months before Mr. Zelaya was ejected and exiled, but their platforms promising to deal with the global recession, the country’s stubborn poverty, mounting crime and dysfunctional schools instantly were overshadowed by the coup.

Porfirio Lobo, who lost the last election four years ago to Mr. Zelaya, had a double-digit lead in the last polls. Mr. Lobo, 61, a wealthy conservative with a long political career, has danced rhetorical circles around the question of Mr. Zelaya’s future. “I think it’s fundamental to have a dialogue with all the actors,” Mr. Lobo told foreign reporters Friday. “I know that at some point I will have to talk to Zelaya.” But he refused to say what might happen to the multiple legal charges, including treason, that Mr. Zelaya faces.His opponent, Elvín Santos, who had been Mr. Zelaya’s vice president before resigning to run for president, has been a more outspoken supporter of the coup.

As the elections approached, the apparent quiet masked an underlying tension. Over the past week, homemade bombs have exploded here and in San Pedro Sula without any injuries. “Everything seems fine but there is a dangerous calm,” said Nubia Palma, 58, a lawyer who says she will vote. “There is speculation about a whole pile of things. They could boycott the elections.”

At this point, a significant boycott seems to be the last recourse available to Mr. Zelaya. He has spent the past two months camped out at the Brazilian Embassy after he sneaked back into the country. The de facto government says it will arrest him when he sets foot outside the building.He spends his days on the telephone with advisers and the media. “The elections won’t punish the coup,” he said in an interview. “They will elect a fraudulent president.” He said that he planned to ask for the results to be annulled on the basis of what he expected to be a low turnout.Along with his wife and two political advisers, there are 18 more people in the embassy, including several reporters and supporters in charge of secretarial work, cleaning and security.

In their spare time, they organize chess tournaments, said Carlos Eduardo Reina, one of the political advisers. Food is allowed in twice a day past the soldiers who are blocking access to the streets around the embassy to keep away supporters. But the large street protests organized to protest Mr. Zelaya’s ouster have long since dwindled, as security forces have cracked down harshly, beating and arresting demonstrators. The government has closed pro-Zelaya broadcasters. And human rights groups report constant harassment and threats against Mr. Zelaya’s supporters. United States officials agree that the human rights situation has deteriorated significantly since the coup.

In theory, the world stands with Mr. Zelaya and his condemnation of the elections. Not a single country has recognized the government of Roberto Micheletti, who was named president by the Congress hours after Mr. Zelaya was flown out of the country. The United States, the European Union and the multilateral banks have all suspended aid to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

The United States, which brokered a deal last month that was to end the crisis and legitimize the elections, has said that it approved of the vote’s going forward. But with the exception of Panama and Costa Rica — whose president had tried to mediate an accord — no other countries in the region have publicly joined the United States in that stance.

Under the deal that the United States worked on and that both Mr. Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti signed, the Honduran Congress was to vote on Mr. Zelaya’s restoration. The two sides were also supposed to form a unity government until Mr. Zelaya’s term expired, as scheduled, at the end of January. The deal quickly fell apart after Congress delayed its vote — now scheduled for Wednesday — and a unity government was never formed. United States officials continue to press for some version of the deal. They hope that the election could unlock the country’s political paralysis.“The newly elected government will have a vested interest that the Micheletti government did not have to engage with the international community,” said Hugo Llorens, the United States ambassador here.

But Mr. Zelaya seems little inclined to continue negotiations.“The accord was a plan to make the elections legitimate,” he said. “As long as the rule of law isn’t restored, there is nothing.”
November 28, 2009
Region Finds U.S. Lacking on Honduras

WASHINGTON — Drug cartels are running amok in Mexico, Raúl Castro is tightening his grip on Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is making mischief with Russia and Iran, but it is a relatively obscure backwater, Honduras, that has provided the Obama administration with its first test in Latin America. The ouster of Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran populist president, five months ago propelled the deeply impoverished country onto President Obama’s packed agenda. The question now is whether his administration’s support for the presidential election being held there on Sunday will be seen as a stamp of approval for a coup or, as senior administration members maintain, the beginning of the end of the crisis.

Most countries in the region see it as the former. Haunted by ghosts of authoritarian governments not long in the grave, countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have argued that an election held by an illegal government is, by definition, illegal. They worry that if Mr. Obama appears to set aside that principle in Honduras, where the United States has long been a power broker, what would Washington do if democracy were threatened in a more powerful country where it wields less influence?

Last week, Marco Aurélio García, a senior adviser to the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said his country “continues to have great hopes” for good relations with the United States. But, he added, “the truth is so far we have a strong sense of disappointment.” While there have been other issues — new United States bases planned for Colombia and a slow movement toward engagement with Cuba — much of the disappointment stems from the administration’s handling of the crisis that began June 28 when Honduran troops detained Mr. Zelaya and forced him into exile.

Mr. Obama was one of the first to condemn the coup and call for Mr. Zelaya to be restored. Rather than impose a strategy for handling the crisis, the White House collaborated with the rest of the region in support of negotiations between Mr. Zelaya and the conservative leaders of Honduras’s de facto government. Since then, the United States policy toward Honduras has been marked by mixed signals and vague objectives. The State Department was pulled in one direction by Democrats, who supported Mr. Zelaya, and another by Republicans, who sought to weaken the administration’s resolve to reinstate him.

The administration suspended some $30 million in assistance to Honduras, but continued the bulk of its aid — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — saying it did not want to punish the majority of Hondurans living in poverty. The United States was slow to criticize human rights abuses by the de facto government, but swift to scold Mr. Zelaya for political stunts that culminated with his sneaking back into Honduras, where he remains camped inside the Brazilian Embassy.
The move that seems to have most undermined Mr. Obama’s clout came last month when the administration reversed course by signaling that it would accept the outcome of Sunday’s elections whether or not Mr. Zelaya was restored to power. Latin American governments accused the administration of putting pragmatism over principle and of siding with Honduran military officers and business interests whose goal was to use the elections to legitimize the coup.

“President Obama’s credibility in the region has been seriously weakened,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a Latin America expert at the Brookings Institution and a former vice president of Costa Rica. “In a matter of five months, his administration’s position on the coup has gone from indignation to indifference to confusion to acquiescence.” In interviews, senior administration officials rejected that view, saying that their strategy shifted as the crisis evolved, but that they never abandoned the region’s shared principles.

Mr. Zelaya, once a darling of the Honduran upper classes, fell from favor when he began increasing the minimum wage, reducing the price of fuel and allying himself with President Chávez. His critics say he crossed a line when he defied the Supreme Court and pushed a referendum to change the Constitution so that he could run for another term. The court called in the military.

The longer the crisis went on, administration officials said, the more they feared Honduras would become another Haiti, where sanctions against a military regime pushed the hemisphere’s poorest country to the brink of collapse. “We understand that we have to build consensus and that we have to work multilaterally, but we can’t sacrifice a country to do that,” said a senior administration official, who like others interviewed for this article asked not to be identified because he or she were discussing diplomatic deliberations. “Not recognizing the elections unless President Zelaya is restored to power doesn’t get us anywhere.”

On Sunday, President Obama sent a letter to President da Silva laying out his arguments. And on Monday, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, made the administration’s case before the Organization of American States, saying the election was not an effort to “whitewash a coup d’état.” Instead, he said, it was an opportunity to permit “the Honduran people to exercise their sovereign will.” With the exception of Panama and Costa Rica, no other countries in the region have publicly said they will join the United States in recognizing the vote. “They really thought he was different,” said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Latin America’s view of Mr. Obama, adding, “But those hopes were dashed over the course of the summer.”

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