Dexter Boniface

Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Elections in Honduras (2009)

In Democratic Crisis, Elections, Honduras, Inter-American Relations, United States Government on November 26, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Who will succeed Manuel Zelaya/Roberto Micheletti and will their election to power be viewed as legitimate? The controversial Honduran election pits Zelaya’s would-be successor and Liberal Party rival, Elvin Santos, against Zelaya’s 2005 challenger Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the conservative National Party.

Lobo carried the day–in part because of his promise to return Honduras to normalcy. His rival, Elvin Santos, once led the polls but was weakened by a rift in the Liberal Party provoked by Zelaya’s ouster. Lobo promised to launch a national dialogue to ameliorate political polarization in the country and called for an amnesty for all those involved in the coup (both Zelaya and the military leadership faced charges for abuse of power). Lobo furthermore indicated he was willing to meet with Zelaya.

The Election Controversy: Can Honduras Vote Itself Out of a Coup?

The controversy surrounding Honduras’ elections stems from the illegal ouster of incumbent President Manuel Zelaya some five months ago (see my blogpost: Coup in Honduras). After months of failed negotiations Zelaya remains out of power, holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Many countries have vowed not to recognize the outcome of the country’s elections in protest of the president’s ouster. Zelaya’s supporters in Honduras promised to boycott the election. The leading candidates for their part backed a negotiated solution to the crisis but appeared to be opposed to Zelaya being reinstated before the election. They urged the international community not to punish the next government.

A strong case can be made for not recognizing Honduras’ elections. As Christopher Sabatini and Daniel Altschuler recently argued, “acceptance of the elections results would [reveal] a troubling willingness to allow elected leaders to be removed as long as reasonably fair elections follow” and “would [signal] to would-be coup plotters in the region that election years offer opportune moments to overthrow democratically-elected presidents.” Brazilian President Lula concurred, stating “We can’t pretend nothing happened…If this state of affairs is allowed to remain, democracy will be at serious risk in Latin and Central America.” (See also  the critical commentaries by Laura Carlsen, Dana Frank, Sarah Stephens, Calvin Tucker, and Mark Weisbrot, among others). Still others see the elections as a viable solution to the months-old crisis including Honduras’ de facto leader Roberto Micheletti. (See also  the supportive commentaries by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Eric Farnsworth, Mary O’Grady, and Edward Schumacher-Matos).

My take: The claims by Christopher Sabatini, Daniel Altschuler and President Lula are probably overstated. While there are principled grounds for not recognizing the election, it is less obvious that doing so will place democracy in the region at serious risk. Although one could claim that the de facto government in effect “got away” with a coup, the reality is that Honduras has paid a heavy price for the illegal ouster of Zelaya. The strong and largely unified reaction of the international community will surely deter all but the most radical coup plotters from kidnapping their president and shipping them out of the country any time in the future. The uncomfortable reality is that the coup conspirators in Honduras–distressed by Zelaya’s actions and weary of his alliance with Hugo Chavez–calculated that it was worth the risk of becoming an international pariah to remove Zelaya. On the other hand, Sabatini and Altschuler are correct to warn of the type of negative precedent that is being set.

The election itself appears to have exhibited a turnout rate more or less consistent with past elections (though the exact numbers remain disputed and arguably under-scrutinized). Furthermore, the election appeared to be free and fair–at least as reported by mainstream media (there were, however, a few reports of voter intimidation in rural areas–mostly at the hands of Zelaya’s supporters). An irregular patchwork of not-so-impartial election observers were on hand to observe the election after the OAS and Carter Center, among other organizations, chose not to send observers.

The Ambiguous Stance of the United States

The United States has taken an ambiguous position which has placed it at odds with much of Latin America. In September, the United States threatened not to recognize the outcome of Honduras’ presidential elections unless a political settlement was first reached. Then, in late October, the United States helped to broker a power-sharing deal to end the crisis. Although Zelaya soon declared the accord “totally dead“, the United States startled many when it indicated that it would be willing to recognize the results of the upcoming election–with or without Zelaya–as long as the key elements of the accord itself were upheld and the elections were deemed to meet international standards. In recent statements, the U.S. indicated the elections were satisfactory but encouraged further steps be taken toward reconciliation (e.g., the accord calls for the establishment of a truth commission on Zelaya’s ouster)–see the comments by Asst. Sec. of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Arturo Valenzuela here. Zelaya, for his part, maintained that his quick restoration to power was a key element of the accord and lambasted the United States for its ambiguous posture. He indicated he would not accept the outcome of the elections nor return to the presidency after the election.

Congress Votes Against Zelaya’s Return – Zelaya in Limbo

As part of the U.S.-backed accord, the Honduran Congress, after a long delay, convened on Dec. 2nd and voted 111-14 not to reinstate the ousted president–in spite of substantial international pressure to do so. The vote followed a damaging ruling by the Supreme Court that said Zelaya cannot be legally returned to the presidency. The United States and European Union expressed disappointment with the Congressional vote.

The road ahead for Zelaya remains unknown. The Mexican Foreign Ministry indicated it would receive Zelaya but negotiations in Honduras broke down over the terms of his exile. After Zelaya refused to sign a letter dropping his demand to be reinstated, the de facto government withdrew its offer to grant the deposed president safe passage to Mexico, demanding that he leave Honduras only as a private citizen (i.e., not as president). In a laughable follow up, Micheletti subsequently explained that Zelaya would only be allowed exile oustide of Central America because he might “attack” Honduras from a neighboring country. Zelaya declared he will leave the Brazilian Embassy by January 27th–the end of his presidential term.

Will Latin America Recognize Lobo’s Election?

Regional heavywieghts Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela along with most others in the region (with the exceptions of Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Canada) have vowed not to recognize the election results. Indeed, one analyst predicted that, “The winner of the elections will remain an international pariah.” Still, in a recent New York Times article, analyst Shelley McConnell noted that the “pragmatic middle ground” may be to work with the O.A.S. to recognize the elections “under protest of how they came about.” It remains to be seen whether the rest of Latin America will follow the United States’ lead, whether a new compromise will be reached in Honduras or whether a deeper rift will develop. In a recent meeting, Brazil and the United States found common ground, requesting that Micheletti step down and Zelaya be granted free passage out of the country–though U.S.-Brazilian relations arguably remain desafinado (out of tune).

Postscript: Did the United States and the International Community Fail Honduras?

In a recent opinion piece, Andres Oppenheimer excoriated Brazil, the U.S., and the OAS for their mishandling of the Honduran crisis. Brazil, he noted, exhibited blatant hypocrisy by defending democracy in Honduras while extending recognition and legitimacy to the autocratic leaders of Cuba and Iran. The United States, for its part, flip-flopped  so much between condemnation and accommodation of the de facto government that the result was utter confusion (the New York Times  and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs similarly criticized the United States for “a disturbing lack of diplomatic skill” if not sheer “ineptitude“). Finally, the OAS was so one-sided in its support of Zelaya that it lost credibility as an honest broker in the crisis. In short, Brazil, the U.S., and the OAS “flunked the Honduras test.”

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The Return of the Military in Latin America?

In Military on November 12, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Latin America’s militaries have undoubtedly lost influence since the advent of the third wave of democratization some three decades ago. For example, the Economist recently heralded the fact that more Latin American citizens “now approve of their governments than trust the armed forces.” However, recent trends suggest militaries still play a powerful (and perhaps growing) role in Latin America’s politics.

Geopolitical Tensions. Military tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have recently escalated. In the wake of a series of brutal slayings, 15,000 Venezuelan soldiers have been dispatched to the Colombia border. One headline read, “Chavez to troops: Prepare for war with Colombia.” Brazil and the United States have appealed to the two countries to talk it out.

Colombia’s U.S.-backed war on drugs has long generated tensions with its neighbors who fear the country’s drug-related violence will spill-over across its borders. More preposterously, the increasingly unpopular Venezuelan president has cited a recent military agreement between the United States and Colombia as evidence that the United States seeks to topple him from power and seize Venezuela’s oil reserves using Colombia as a surrogate (for a more plausible explanation, see here). The United States, for its part, maintains (though not without controversy) that the agreement merely formalizes existing arrangements with Colombia and enables the U.S. to use one additional air force base (Palanquero) for counter-narcotics operations following Ecuador’s decision to restrict America’s use of an airstrip in Manta. At the same time, the Colombian government has accused several of its neighbors, notably Venezuela and Ecuador, of providing refuge to the FARC guerrilla movement. In a dramatic military action last year, Colombian troops attacked a guerrilla camp on the Ecuadorean side of the border, leading Ecuador and Venezuela to freeze relations with Colombia. Adding fuel to the fire, military spending has accelerated in all three countries (see below).

Rising Military Spending. In a recent editorial, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias noted that, “This year alone, the governments of Latin America will spend nearly $50 billion on their armies. That’s nearly double the amount spent five years ago, and it is a ridiculous sum in a region where 200 million people live on fewer than $2 a day and where only Colombia is engaged in an armed conflict.” Latin American military spending is indeed on the rise with Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador topping the list in terms of new military purchases. Most worrying, perhaps, is the notable military build-up in Venezuela which, according to the Miami Herald, “has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, dozens of attack helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.” Venezuela is also procuring some 300 Russian-made battle tanks, anti-aircraft missiles (including man-portable SAM-24s), and munitions from Russia.

The Military as Police: The War on Drugs, Gangs, and Organized Crime. Latin America’s militaries have also become increasingly active on the homefront, particularly in the violence-plagued countries of Mexico and Central America where militaries have been mobilized to supplement and/or supplant traditional police forces. In gang-ravaged El Salvador, for example, the government recently announced that the army will send an additional 2,500 soldiers (adding to an existing contingent of 1,200) to crime-plagued parts of the country to carry out joint patrols with police. Still, nowhere is this trend more evident than in Mexico where President Felipe Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his war against drug smuggling–some 45,000 troops have been dispatched to drug hot spots across Mexico. Tragically, Mexico’s local and state police have furnished an unreliable ally in the country’s war on drugs.  In this year alone, soldiers have confronted Monterrey police officers suspected of helping drug cartels on more than 65 occasions! According to recent reports, “The general in charge of army operations in northeastern Mexico has warned police chiefs that his men are ready to open fire on police if it happens again.”

Civil-Military Tensions. In a few countries in the region, furthermore, tensions between elected leaders and the military have threatened democratic stability. As President Arias further stated in his editorial–in direct reference to the recent democratic crisis in Honduras, “the combination of powerful militaries and fragile democracies creates a terrible risk.” In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo recently replaced the country’s top military commanders amid (unsubstantiated but not implausible) rumors of a possible coup conspiracy. Elsewhere in South America–notably in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, civil-military tensions have taken on a different hue as former military dictators have been put on trial for past human rights abuses. Recent death threats against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are being blamed on supporters of the Argentine military as a form of retaliation against new trials. The past era of military rule continues to weigh heavily in the politics of the Southern Cone countries.

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