On May 22nd, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and former President Manuel Zelaya signed an accord in Cartagena, Colombia providing a path for Zelaya’s return to Honduras from exile, as well as the readmission of Honduras to the Organization of American States (OAS). A May 2nd ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court annulled the criminal charges against Zelaya, thus permitting him to safely return to his country. His main advisor, Rasel Tomé, announced that Zelaya is likely to arrive on the weekend of May 28th.1 Zelaya’s return to Honduras is the principal requirement for Honduras’ readmission to the OAS. Accordingly, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has announced that Honduras has already met the necessary conditions for its reentry into the organization.
Insulza has suggested convening an extraordinary session of the OAS to reinstate Honduras before the next scheduled assembly on June 5-7 in El Salvador. Calling for an extraordinary session requires the backing of two-thirds of the 35-ambassador OAS Permanent Council. The urgent nature of the attempts to reinstate Honduras is partly due to the Assembly’s already overbooked schedule, but also to Honduras’ critical central location, which enables it to play a strategic role contributing to greater cohesion on Central American security and drug trafficking control.2 Marco Cáceres, the editor of Honduras Weekly, argues that, “we tend to overlook the fact that the OAS currently needs Honduras as much or more than Honduras needs the OAS” because it is home to a U.S. military base and central to several drug trafficking routes.3 With support for readmission across the political spectrum, including the U.S., Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela, Honduras’ acceptance seems probable.
Background on the 2009 coup
Honduras was suspended from the OAS on July 5, 2009 following the forceful expulsion of Zelaya from power. The military coup was executed on the orders of Honduras’ Supreme Court, and resulted in the de facto presidency of Roberto Micheletti, then Speaker of Congress and next in line for succession. According to the Supreme Court, Zelaya had invited the coup by attempting to hold a referendum on amending the constitutional limits on presidential re-elections. During his exile, Zelaya stayed in the Dominican Republic as a distinguished guest of the government.
Current President Porfirio Lobo took power on January 27, 2010. While the balloting itself was relatively fair and orderly, Zelaya’s supporters were largely underrepresented. Zelaya called for a boycott of the election in the hope of undermining the electoral process and gaining support for his reinstatement as president. Carlos H. Reyes, the leftist candidate representing Zelaya’s supporters, withdrew his candidacy in support of Zelaya’s boycott campaign. The U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the election and has remained consistent in its support of the Lobo government. However, following the election, both the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Mercosur declared they would not recognize the results of the 2009 Honduran election or the legitimacy of the Lobo presidency. They argued that recognizing the elections would provide legitimacy to the coup and the Micheletti government. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela have withheld diplomatic recognition of the Lobo government, at least until Zelaya is allowed to return to the country. In an April 27th meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Cumbre de América Latina y el Caribe, CLAC), all the regional foreign ministers issued a statement of support for the Cartagena negotiation process.
Colombia’s Growing Regional Diplomatic Role
In April, as part of their improved diplomatic relations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met together with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to develop a plan for Honduras’ return to the OAS. Ousted President Manuel Zelaya was included in the discussion via speakerphone from Caracas, where he had been visiting President Chávez. The Accord was supported by the Venezuelan and Brazilian foreign ministers and finalized when Colombia’s foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín, visited Honduras to acquire President Lobo’s signature.
The Cartagena Accord demonstrates Colombia’s growing power in regional relations. Colombia plays an increasingly important role in moderating between the U.S. and more radical regional states because of its historic connections to the U.S. Under President Santos, Colombia’s diplomatic power has benefited from its growing economy and stable democracy, as other regional powers, such as Brazil and Argentina, become more distracted by elections and internal issues. President Santos’ ability to re-engage Chávez diplomatically has helped neutralize some of the extremist influences in the region and has contributed to moderate multilateral negotiations, like the Cartagena Accord. The U.S. has not fully backed the Cartagena process partly due to a residual distrust over Chávez’s power in the negotiations and the exclusion of U.S. representatives during its initial phases. However, the U.S. has not attempted to sabotage the negotiation process, making the recent Accord a positive signal for Honduran democracy.
The Cartagena Accord
The Cartagena Accord outlines four main points to be achieved before Honduras can be readmitted into the OAS. After the signing of the Accord, Honduras can count on the support of both Colombia and Venezuela in its bid to return to the OAS. The Accord consists of the following requirements:
• Zelaya’s return to Honduras with a guarantee of being allowed to participate in politics, which requires the removal of his remaining criminal charges
• Political recognition of the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP)
• Evidence of improvement to the human rights record
• An agreement by President Lobo to hold a constituent assembly for the rewriting of the Constitution.4
The Honduran Court of Appeals annulled the corruption charges against Zelaya on May 2nd, thus removing the legal barrier preventing his return from exile. This success was followed by Public Prosecutor Luis Rubí’s announcement on May 6th that his office would not file an appeal.5 Yet, while the criminal charges no longer prohibit his return, Zelaya has not actually been exonerated, leaving open the possibility that he could still be accused again. The original charges also included attempting to override the constitution by calling for a referendum that would permit presidential reelection. However, this charge is no longer applicable because on January 12th, the Honduran Congress unanimously passed the same constitutional change that Zelaya initially proposed.
The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) is a popular Honduran resistance movement formed in opposition to the coup. The FNRP coalition consists of trade unions, peasant groups, and leftist popular organizations.6 A majority of its members actively support Zelaya, while some solely object to the unconstitutionality and violence of his removal. Zelaya has consistently required the recognition of the FNRP as a political party, citing it as a prerequisite to his return. President Lobo has also supported the FNRP’s political inclusion. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE) is open to the participation and inclusion of any political group, such as the FNRP, as long as it complies with the law. FNRP supporters believe that Zelaya’s return will unite the FNRP, possibly behind the candidacy of his wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. Meanwhile, his opponents believe his return could splinter the FNRP because the coalition lacks a coherent political policy and is united only in opposition to the 2009 coup and Zelaya’s exile.7
International pressure has encouraged President Lobo to develop new policies on human rights. During and after the coup, the security forces violated the rights of ordinary citizens and continued to threaten and attack human rights defenders, labor leaders and political activists. Honduras has set up a truth commission to investigate the events of the coup and to make recommendations for the future. The human rights provision of the Accord seeks to improve Honduras’ freedom of speech and expression, while also contributing to justice and accountability for the coup perpetrators. The Accord specifies that exiled political prisoners are welcome to return, which is a rather superficial reform given that Zelaya is the principal person of concern. Overall, compliance on human rights is the most ambiguous of the requirements of the Cartagena Accords. President Lobo’s assurances that human rights will be respected are by no means guarantees. This past December, Human Rights Watch published a report, “After the Coup: Ongoing Violence, Intimidation, and Impunity in Honduras,” that describes the lack of accountability and justice regarding post-coup human rights violations by the security forces, as well as continued threats and attacks on human rights defenders and political activists.8
At present, Lobo has agreed to hold a constituent assembly. He has also guaranteed a greater opening of political space for citizen participation in the constitutional process through plebiscites and referenda.9 Both Zelaya and the FNRP have demanded the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, yet they have not specified what reforms they hope to pass. The assembly also provides an opportunity for President Lobo to rewrite the Constitution for his political benefit. Since Lobo and his government will be running the Constitutional Assembly and will have the power to approve or veto newly proposed constitutions, he will have greater control over what reforms are included.
The political consequences of Zelaya’s return to Honduras are uncertain. The consolidation of the FNRP as a legitimate political force may contribute positively to the democratic climate and freedom of expression. Additionally, his homecoming indicates that the country is moving on from an unwelcome chapter in its past, while including all political participants and points of view. The hope is that a more mature Zelaya will represent political progress and equality while consolidating and ensuring the legitimacy of the current government. The Accord, in addition to Zelaya’s return, will also aid the political fortunes of President Lobo. Lobo, who benefits from a more organized and better-funded party, will be seen as the hero who resolved the extended political conflict. The conclusion of the political drama will enable Lobo’s government to refocus on domestic issues such as combating crime, corruption and poverty. On the other hand, Zelaya’s presence could also awake potentially divisive memories of the coup, even leading to large-scale protests and calls for his reinstatement as president.
The positive results of Honduras’ return to the OAS are clearer. Honduras is strategically valuable due to it geographic location, which contributes to its mediating role for issues such as narcotrafficking and immigration. The OAS will help reintegrate Honduras into regional issues and may provide a more receptive environment to investment. Nonetheless, a potentially worrisome side effect is that Honduras’ return to the OAS will remove the diplomatic pressure to improve its human rights record and democratic institutions.
References for this article can be found here