Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Pushing The Honduran Coup Reset Button

Coups... who really wants one? Nobody. But if it does happen in your country, better find a quick reset button that everybody can live with. The best reset? An election. This November 29th, Honduras is holding an election that needs to be recognised by the international community because, right now, Honduras is a de facto anarchy. Children have been out of school for half of the year, narco-traffickers are taking over the country, crime rates are rising out of control (I hear automatic gunfire almost every night from Las Mercedes just south of our barrio, Sauce), and some reports suggest that among the poorest of the poor, some are even dying of hunger. One colleague admitted to me that if Honduras gets hit by a hurricane this year, "we're totally screwed" because COPECO, the Honduran department of disaster preparedness and response, doesn't have the logistical means or resources to respond. "The most vulnerable communities will simply be washed away and nobody will be there to help," he said. Honduras needs a government again.

So, with this in mind, as a budding academic living in Honduras, myself, I respectfully take issue with a forth-coming open letter to President Obama that has been passed around among Latin American scholars. It makes some ill-advised recommendations about the upcoming election.

"Dear President Barak Obama,

We are writing to urge you to stand with democracy and human rights in Honduras. With only days left before the scheduled November 29 elections the U.S. government must make a choice: it can either side with democracy, along with every government in Latin America, or it can side with the coup regime, and remain isolated. Moreover,
the U.S. cannot afford to maintain its deafening silence regarding the innumerable and grave human rights abuses committed by the coup government in Honduras - a silence that has become a conspicuous international embarrassment. The U.S. must forcefully denounce these abuses, and match its words with action as well. It must make the coup regime understand that the United States government will no longer tolerate the violence and repression that the Micheletti government has practiced against the Honduran people since seizing power on June 28, 2009.

Honduras now stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice. The coup regime remains determined - in the absence of significant pressure from the U.S. government - to move forward with the elections, in the hopes that the international community will eventually recognize the results. In so doing, they hope to legitimize their illegal and unconstitutional government.

Free and fair elections on November 29 are already impossible, as more than two-thirds of the campaign period allowed under Honduran law has already passed, under conditions in which freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press have all been under attack throughout the country. This repression has been widely documented and denounced by Honduran and international human rights organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

The Rio Group of 23 nations, which includes nearly all of Latin America and much of the Caribbean, had forcefully declared that it will not recognize the November 29th elections if President Zelaya is not first re-instated. Thus the United States is at odds with the rest of the Hemisphere in its stated willingness to recognize these illegitimate elections.

Free and fair elections can only be carried out in a climate in which debating, organizing, and all other aspects of election campaigns can be conducted in an atmosphere that is free from fear; in which all views and parties are free to make their voices heard - not just those that are allowed under an illegal military occupation. We therefore call on the U.S. government to support an electoral process in Honduras that allows for a full three months - as mandated under Honduran law - for electoral campaigning, to take place after the restoration of President Manuel Zelaya. Only in this way can the electoral process achieve legitimacy in both the eyes of the Honduran people and the international community.

In the months that have transpired since the April Summit of the Americas, we are saddened to see that your promise of treating Latin American nations as equals is evaporating. You declared at that time, "I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere." In remarks that were recorded, cited, and broadcast all over the world, you asserted: "The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds." Since then, your government has failed to match these words with deeds regarding the coup d'etat in Honduras. As a result, the United States is once again isolating itself in the Americas.

The U.S. must also match its rhetorical commitment to democracy with concrete deeds, and support the immediate restoration of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency of Honduras and full guarantees of a free and fair election.

[A long list of brilliant and respected scholars]"

First, I take issue with the rigid tone and language, and would add that it makes use of unhelpfully divisive hyperbole. It ascribes a malicious intentionality to the coup regime, conjuring up memories of the "axis of evil/either you're with us or against us" days of international decision-making. Unwittingly, the letter defines most of Honduran society as "against us", too. Here's how: right now, the "coup regime", de facto president Micheletti and his cabinet, has ceded to almost all of Zelaya's demands in negotiations, including his limited return to power. However, congress is holding up the passage by abstaining from a vote. The diputados (departmental representatives) don't want to vote for Zelaya's reinstatement because it may affect their electability in the upcoming election, as Zelaya's reinstatement is extremely unpopular. So, the article makes the case that a sinister "regime" is behind the delay, when really congress, and by extension, the Honduran people are guilty.

Secondly, the coup wasn't a "violent overthrow". Mel Zelaya was removed from office (legally) and exiled (illegally) without a drop of blood being shed, initially. It's true there has been some scant violence against protesters, which happens several times a year in London. Too, more worryingly, there have been what look like political hits. The "golpistas" (coup leaders) have been less an actively malignant force than a passively malignant force. Claims of active repression, brutality and violence are well-documented and possibly over-stated (and notably unreferenced in this letter). But the real violence has been the diverted government resources, the aid freeze, the de facto trade embargo, the "alza de petroleo" (sharply rising gas prices), and the remittance and visa freezes. The economic situation is generally very difficult at all levels, with a disproportionate effect to the abjectly poor. I already mentioned the reports of starvation in some poor areas. Business is very bad for the common man/woman in Honduras. The consensus within Honduras is very kitchen-table: "la unica salida, the only way out of this mess is the election."

This brings me to my last sticking point with the letter: it threatens to impede the elections. "The only way out is the election," I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say this, and I whole-heartedly agree. Honduras needs to hold elections to hit the reset button. If countries don't recognise the next president, it would have a desperately destabilising effect, as Honduras has essentially become a de facto anarchy; it's running without a government. The possibility of an unrecognised election would damage and demoralise Honduran society. Honduras desperately needs a new president in order for the normal functions of government to resume.

I'm already signed up as an election monitor!