Honduras politics: Coup anniversary

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

June 28th will mark the one-year anniversary of the coup that removed Honduras’s former president, Manuel Zelaya (2006-09), from office. Following months of instability and international isolation, elections were held last November, and a newly elected president took office in January. However, Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the Partido Nacional (PN) continues to struggle to restore Honduras’s full international standing, and is still not accepted as the legitimate head of state by many of his Latin American neighbours.

Among the governments that refuse to recognise Mr Lobo are those of key countries in South Amercia, as well as Mexico and neighbouring Nicaragua. These include moderate leftist governments led by Brazil, and the more radical, leftist governments of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), led by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. They consider that the November 2009 elections were flawed, as they took place under an interim government that failed to re-instate Mr Zelaya following the coup.

These countries again voiced their opposition to the new government at a conference of the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur, the Union of South American nations) in May, where leaders reconfirmed their refusal to recognise Mr Lobo. When Spain invited Mr Lobo to participate in the EU-Latin American summit in Madrid in May, Unasur leaders threatened not to participate, forcing Mr Lobo not to attend (he did attend a separate meeting in Madrid to sign an association agreement between the EU and Central America). Honduras has yet to be readmitted to the Organisation of American States (OAS).

On the other side of the debate is the Obama administration in Washington, which recognised Mr Lobo early on. It is joined by the governments of Canada, the EU, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and most of the countries of Central America. They consider that the November 2009 elections were free and fair and that Mr Lobo has taken sufficient steps to foster national reconciliation and strengthen democracy. He has, for instance, appointed a unity cabinet and established of a truth and reconciliation commission to study the events surrounding the coup.

Critically for the economy, Honduras also remains cut off from loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which has frozen around US$200m in credits. Other multilateral bodies such as the IMF have restored credit lines, however, and trade is largely unaffected.

Turning point?

In an attempt to break the diplomatic impasse, at an OAS meeting in June, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged members to readmit Honduras to the regional grouping. The OAS issued a resolution on June 8th, whereby members agreed to form a high-level commission to visit Honduras and assess the political process and submit recommendations to the General Assembly no later than July 30th. This may be a possible turning point and a sign that the opposition to the Lobo government may be easing.

Brazil has a key role to play and is expected eventually to change its position. The Brazilian government became actively involved after it made its embassy in Tegucigalpa available to Mr Zelaya as part of the efforts to have him reinstated following the coup. It has steadfastly refused to recognise the Lobo government because the interim government did not re-instate Mr Zelaya. An about-turn would be embarrassing for the Lula government ahead of the October general elections, but there is a possibility that the OAS mission to Honduras could provide a road map that would allow Brazil to change its stance without losing face.

Within Central America only Nicaragua’s leftist president, Daniel Ortega, refuses to recognise the Lobo government; the region’s other governments have taken a more pragmatic approach. The issue of Honduras’s return to another regional body, the Sistema para la Integración Centroamericana (SICA, System for Central American Integration), will be discussed at a Central American presidential summit scheduled for July 20th.

Zelaya return still a hurdle

One of the conditions that leftist South American governments will want to see met before they recognise Honduras is likely to be an eventual return of Mr Zelaya, who is currently living in exile in the Dominican Republic, and this will pose difficulties for the government. Mr Lobo has said that he would personally accompany Mr Zelaya back to Honduras and that Mr Zelaya would not be arrested. However, this position is not shared by influential conservative figures in Honduras who supported last year’s coup, and the conditions do not currently appear to exist for his return.

Several of Mr Zelaya’s opponents and government officials, including the foreign minister, Mario Canahuati, and a constitutional court magistrate, Oscar Chinchilla, have said that upon his return to Honduras Mr Zelaya should face charges of constitutional violations for his attempts (which were blocked by the Supreme Court) to hold a referendum on constitutional changes intended to pave the way for a presidential re-election bid. He also faces other civil charges of misappropriation of funds and corruption during his term. In a move that underscores the difficulties involved in Mr Zelaya’s possible return, in May the Honduran Supreme Court fired three lower judges and a state prosecutor—all of which had opposed the coup—alleging that they were participating in political activities, which is prohibited by law.

Another thorny issue related to Mr Zelaya’s return would be the role he would play in Honduran politics. In May Mr Zelaya announced his proposal for reconciliation, which includes the full restoration of his constitutional rights, his right to participate fully in political activities in Honduras, the granting of legal political party status to the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP, a coalition of grass-roots groups formed to demand Mr Zelaya’s return) and respect for human rights.

While Mr Zelaya has not specifically discussed his future with the party with which he was affiliated as president, the Partido Liberal (PL), the fact that he is seeking legal status for the FNRP indicates that he may be seeking an alternative political platform. Several leaders of the FNRP have accepted posts in the Lobo government, but Mr Zelaya’s return would serve to embolden the party.