Agreement to End Honduran Coup Marks Victory and Challenge

Oct 30, 2009

Last night, Oct. 29, Honduras' de facto regime finally agreed to allow
Congress to vote to "restore full executive power prior to June 28".
Conceding to international and national pressure, the Honduran coup
appears to be facing its final days.


June
28 was the date when the Armed Forces kidnapped the elected president,
Manuel Zelaya, and forcibly exiled him to Costa Rica. If the agreement
brokered this week holds, the Honduran resistance movement will have
turned the ugly precedent of a modern-day military coup d'etat into an
example of the strength of nonviolent grassroots resistance.

The Victory

The
points of the agreement are the same ones that the de facto regime has
rejected since talks began in San Jose, Costa Rica. By last week, there
was supposedly agreement on all points except the reinstatement of
Zelaya.

Although the decision to restore Zelaya to power must
receive a non-binding opinion from the Supreme Court and then be
approved in Congress, it appears to be a done deal. Zelaya's team
reportedly had the support of members from the UD Party, 20 members of
the Liberal Party and more recently the support of the National Party
to revoke the decree that was issued to justify his removal from
office. That decree was originally accompanied by a forged letter of
resignation that was immediately denounced.

President Zelaya expressed "satisfaction" at the agreement. Zelaya's negotiating team had agreed long before on the terms of the revised San Jose Accords, and negotiations were hung up on the coup's refusal to allow reinstatement of the president. The terms are:

  1. Creation of a government of national reconciliation that includes cabinet members from both sides
  2. Suspension of any possible vote on holding a Constitutional Assembly until after Jan. 27, when Zelaya's term ends
  3. A general amnesty for political crimes was rejected by both sides
  4. Command of the Armed Forces to be placed under the Electoral Tribunal during the month prior to the elections.
  5. Restitution of Zelaya to the presidency
  6. Creation
    of a Verification Commission to follow up on the accords, consisting of
    two members of the OAS, and one member each from the constitutional
    government and the coup regime
  7. Creation of a Truth Commission to begin work in 2010
  8. Revoke sanctions against Honduras following the accords

The
leader of the de facto regime, Roberto Micheletti, issued a statement
Thursday night saying, "I am pleased to announce that a few minutes ago
I authorized my negotiating team to sign an agreement that marks the
beginning of the end of the political situation in the country."

Micheletti
noted that "accepting this proposal represents a significant concession
on the part of this government." In the last round of talks, he had
insisted that the Supreme Court decide the question of reinstatement.
He added, "But we understand that our people demand us to turn the page
of our history in these difficult moments. For that reason, I have
decided to support this new proposal to achieve a final accord as soon
as possible."

Few people know what magic words were uttered to
change the opinion of one of the most stubborn dictators in recent
history. But they probably came out of Tom Shannon’s mouth.

For
months, both sides have noted that the U.S. government is the only
entity with the power to break the impasse, due to Honduran military
and economic dependency on the United States. In a press conference held in Tegucigalpa
shortly before the agreement, Shannon explicitly confirmed that the
sticking point was "political will" (the coup's unwillingness to accept
Zelaya's reinstatement) and that the U.S. government was there to
induce that political will.

"From our point of view, the
deal’s on the table. This is not really a question of drafting or of
shaping a paragraph. It’s really a question of political will. And
that’s why it was so important, I think, for us to come to Honduras at
this moment to make clear to all Hondurans that we believe the
political will that is displayed and expressed by Honduras’s leaders
should respect the democratic vocation of the Honduran people and the
democratic aspirations of the Honduran people, and the desire of
Honduras to return to a larger democratic community in the Americas...
And that’s why we came, to underscore our interest in ensuring that the
political will is there to do a deal."

Shannon
mentioned legitimizing the elections and future access to development
funding from international financial institutions as carrots (or
sticks) in the negotiations:

"...An agreement within the
national dialogue opens a large space for members of the international
community to assist Honduras in this election process, to observe the
elections, and to have a process that is peaceful and which produces
leadership that is widely recognized throughout the hemisphere as
legitimate. This will be important as a way of creating a pathway for
Honduras to reintegrate itself into the Inter-American community, to
not – and not just the OAS, but also the Inter-American Development
Bank and its other institutions, and to access development funding
through the international financial institutions."

It
worked—at least in the formal stages, as the world now awaits
implementation. The State Department was in a celebratory mood
following the success of the high-level delegation consisting of
Shannon, deputy Craig Kelly and the White House NSC representative for
the Western Hemisphere, Dan Restrepo. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton held a special press conference from Islamabad announcing the "breakthrough in negotiations" in Honduras:

"I
want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President Zelaya
and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement. I also
congratulate Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for the important role
he has played in fashioning the San Jose process and the OAS for its
role in facilitating the successful round of talks...

I cannot
think of another example of a country in Latin America that having
suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame
such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue.

This is a big
step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to
democracy as embodied in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. I'm
very proud that I was part of the process, that the United States was
instrumental in the process. But I'm mostly proud of the people of
Honduras who have worked very hard to have this matter resolved
peacefully."

Historians will chart the course of the little coup that couldn't.

But
from this observer's chair, negotiation and dialogue played a minor
role in the seeming resolution. In the end, the mobilization of
Honduran society sent a clear message that "normal" government would
not be possible and even more widespread insurrection loomed unless a
return to democracy reopened institutional paths. International
pressures and sanctions played a far greater role in cornering the coup
than the technical terms of an accord that is vague, difficult to
implement and contentious. In this context, the challenges ahead are
enormous.

The Challenges

If
it weren't for the extraordinary levels of commitment, participation
and awareness generated by the democratic crisis over the past four
months, the challenges Honduran society now faces could easily be
considered impossible for any democracy to face. They include:

1) Restore constitutional order, within the presidency, the new cabinet and state institutions

This
is a mammoth task. Zelaya cannot just step back into the Presidential
Palace and assume that society has returned to its pre-coup state.
Under the terms of the agreement, he must form a new cabinet with the
participation of coup supporters. Anger runs high and this will be a
controversial and delicate undertaking. He must review the damage done
to national coffers under the coup regime. He must reestablish a
relationship with the Armed Forces and the other branches of
government. Many institutions have undergone purges of personnel under
the coup and must be reestablished and work to regain legitimacy.

2) Organize elections for Nov. 29 or a later agreed-upon date

If
the original date is not changed, that leaves less than a month before
nationwide elections. Imagine a nation moving from the complete
breakdown of its democratic system and institutions, to campaigns, to
elections in less than thirty days. Anti-coup candidates had pulled
out, other campaigns had been met consistently with protests, and now
the mere logistics of organizing elections raises serious issues.

The
timeline is critical to the process. Zelaya told AFP that the timeline
is under discussion today and pointed out a concern that has been
growing among international organizations and the Honduran public: if
reinstatement and the return to democratic order do not happen
immediately, the elections scheduled for Nov. 29 will be in jeopardy.
His return, he noted, "must be well before the elections to be able to
validate them."

In fact, despite the breakthrough, the
legitimacy of the elections is already in jeopardy. If the
reinstatement process drags out, as the negotiations did, Hondurans
worry they could find themselves in the middle of an electoral farce.
Even if all goes smoothly, nothing will be easy or exactly "normal".
The United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the
European Union had all announced they would not send elections
observers to coup-sponsored elections, also citing the logistical
difficulties of putting together effective teams on such short notice.
Now the OAS has indicated it will try to do so but logistics continue
to be a problem. The European Union indicated it required six weeks to put together such an elections mission and could no longer consider it.

Honduran
law provides for a three-month campaign period prior to the vote so
would need to be modified to accommodate a Nov. 29 election. Even an
immediate end to serious human rights violations—many of which are
essential to free and fair elections, such as freedom of expression,
freedom of press and freedom of assembly—will leave wounds and gaps. As
the agreement was being hammered out, security forces attacked a
peaceful march that had acquired all the permits required by the de
facto government to legally demonstrate.

3) Continue moving toward a vote on holding a Constitutional Assembly

This
demand is not going away, despite the agreement between Zelaya and
Micheletti not to raise it until after Jan. 27. This point of the
accords caused Juan Barahona, a leader of the National Front Against
the Coup, to resign from the Zelaya negotiating team because it has
become central to the movement not only to restore, but to expand
Honduran democracy.

A Constitutional Assembly now appears more
necessary than ever. It would serve to repair the contradictions in the
current Constitution that coup-mongers exploited to rupture the
democratic order, and channel the legitimate demands of organizations
of peasants, indigenous peoples, urban poor, women, youth and others.
Since the awakening of popular sectors in resistance to the coup, it is
not possible to conceive of a free and stable society without
proceeding with a Constitutional Assembly.

Rush to Define Positions

Zelaya
was quick to point out that obstacles remain. "This is a first step to
bringing about my reinstatement that will have to go through several
stages. I'm moderately optimistic," he told AFP news service from the
Brazilian Embassy, where he has been holed up since Sept. 21.

The
reinstatement of President Zelaya will likely be voted on soon. Emails
from the Honduran Internet groups that have formed a virtual community
to debate and decry the military coup in their country, now demonstrate
a range of feelings, from jubilation to open skepticism. Elections pose
a huge challenge to anti-coup forces since a wide range of opinions
play out within the diverse National Front Against the Coup.

Hondurans
now move into the next phase of a long struggle to rebuild and broaden
democracy. The challenge includes holding free and fair elections in
the short term, but also includes critical issues of expanding
democratic rights and participation beyond the elections and the system
of representation. They must find ways to heal deep wounds and confront
an economic and political crisis that is far from over.

If the
coup finally falls and Zelaya is restored to power, Honduran society
and the international community will score an historic victory. It must
be remembered though, that the victory is a defensive one—it marks the
successful rollback of anti-democratic forces in a small but determined
nation.

Those forces will not desist—in Honduras or in other
places where democracy is vulnerable and nefarious interests are
strong. Until democracy in the fullest sense—participatory and
dedicated to nonviolence—gains ground, the world could be stuck in long
battles to defend against attacks instead of moving forward toward
societies where this kind of offensive against the rule of law can no
longer occur.

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