Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Could There Have Been a Different Outcome?

While the US may still have hopes of reviving the corpse, the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord seems to be quite dead. The Frente de Resistencia has declared a boycott of the national elections scheduled for November 29, even if somehow President Zelaya were restored in the next 18 days, and in truth, it is hard to see how anyone can claim elections under the current conditions will be free, fair, and transparent-- the conditions the US originally set for recognition, although with recent statements it is clear that the only US "condition" for recognition is that a semblance of elections be carried out.

So the question occurs to us: was this inevitable? leave aside the criticism of the waffling, muddied messages, and speaking silences of the US State Department that always came just when it seemed the de facto regime was getting clear on what was necessary for the international community to be satisfied. Was there ever any solution to this crisis, once the coup architects started on their Plan A without any Plan B?

In retrospect, we think that a key mistake was ever negotiating with Roberto Micheletti. Not that anyone could have quite realized at the time how intransigent he would be personally: that kind of unpredictable personality is a risk in any negotiation. But because doing so not only gave him and the regime that he consolidated undue legitimacy, elevating them to the equivalent of the constitutional President and his cabinet; it also allowed Micheletti to consolidate executive power within Honduras.

Am I suggesting the international community should simply have given Honduras an immediate cold shoulder? hardly. But if we ask ourselves, on June 29, who in the Honduran government still exercised power with a constitutional mandate, then we can identify the Congress and yes, even the corrupt and unjust Supreme Court as branches of the government with which the international community could have initiated more productive dialogue, as these bodies have something to lose, while Roberto Micheletti, once he cast his lot with the coup architects, could not reverse course.

At the time, of course, international representatives did refuse to talk to the de facto regime's new head. This was one of the things the Micheletti regime complained about. But instead of continuing to isolate the illegally installed executive officers; instead of opening and sustaining a dialogue with the Congress, which we now know includes a substantial group against the coup, and a majority we suspect wishes the coup never happened; the US pushed for a mediated dialogue directly between Micheletti and Zelaya.

Remember that the original San Jose dialogue forced the legally elected President to accept negotiating directly with an unconstitutional usurper? It was that moment that gave Micheletti authority. Not the military intervention on June 28, that was by all accounts initiated by a cabal of business interests spear-headed by political masters not currently holding elected office.

The ringleaders of the coup, people like Carlos Flores Facussé, former president and current business leader, are by definition pragmatists. If, at the beginning of the international intervention, Micheletti-- who we have seen reveal himself as an honest ideologue (however misguided we find his ideological positions to be)-- had been isolated, discussions had taken place with Congress, and back-channel communication with the pragmatists in the cabal was carried out, no legitimacy would have been conferred on the usurping executive officers, and a wider array of interests could have been encouraged to consider what they stood to lose.

Once Micheletti was treated as Zelaya's equal, the course of negotiations was almost certainly headed for deadlock. Worse: the first draft of the San Jose Accord gave the Micheletti executive branch too much credence. Inserted in that document, which emerged as the basis for the Tegucigalpa Accord, were items that presumed the guilt of President Zelaya in matters that were (still are in fact) live subjects of legal proceedings in Honduras. So the spin given the San Jose Accord, even in its unsigned state, in Honduras was that Oscar Arias recognized that Zelaya was trying to change the constitution to stay in power.

What if, instead, negotiations had taken place with the Honduran Congress? it was Congress, after all, that made Micheletti de facto executive; it was Congress that accepted a forged resignation letter; it was Congress that issued a Decree removing Zelaya from office without citing any constitutional basis for that action. Congress, as an institution, has lost more from the coup than the presidency, as an institution. And all of the members of Congress were duly elected by the Honduran people; they represent a significant variety of positions; and they have something lasting to lose if the elections of 2009 are not recognized.

Micheletti, having achieved his long-term goal of exercising executive authority (although he will never have the title "President" legally), cannot run for President in the future, under the Constitution he claims to be defending. He of course can return to Congress and run and, given the nature of Honduran politics, count on staying in Congress as long as he wants; but he probably won't find enthusiastic welcome from other politicians there who will not want to be tainted by association. (Think of the way Elvin Santos, the presidential candidate from Micheletti's own Liberal Party, has tried to distance himself; now multiply it by 64.)

So Micheletti literally has everything to lose in negotiating, and nothing to gain; and thus rhetorically has nothing to lose by, as he has, continually perverting, subverting, or simply rejecting any negotiated settlement.


boz said...

I hope you continue the "Could There Have Been a Different Outcome?" series. I don't think this one post covers everything that needs to be said about that question.

On this particular post, I agree with the broader point that negotiating only with Michelleti seems to have been an error. I said something similar early on about the need to negotiate directly with Congress and the military. Yet, you fail to make clear in the text who is most to blame for that strategic failure: Mel Zelaya.

If Zelaya had wanted to negotiate with other sectors, he could have pushed to do so early on and the OAS including the US would have backed him up. Yes, the secondary actors in the process could have steered this a bit differently, but to point fingers at the US and the "international community" without mentioning Zelaya's own poor decisions is to miss the president's key role as a sovereign actor in this process.

RAJ said...

I agree that this post in no way covers everything that needs to be said on this question, and hesitated about even starting this process.

So this one necessarily looks at one facet of the situation. Your take on Zelaya is interesting, because it gives him rather more agency than I think he had in the process.

So I need to think about why we see this part so differently, other than the obvious point of divergence, which is my impression that the entire San Jose dialogue was pushed forward somewhat unilaterally by the US, standing in the background behind Arias.

Without adopting an undue psychological perspective (and it took me a long, long time to accept that part of Micheletti's behavior is simply, irreducibly, irrational, based on true belief in the threat of an unlikely communist takeover), I think we might examine whether, having been expatriated, President Zelaya understood himself to have enough standing to define the terms of engagement, or to contest those defined by the US and the OAS. What his mental state was, and how much he was prepared with thinking his way through the unthinkable. Certainly, others of my acquaintance who have been affected directly by the coup-- indeed, I myself-- have found simply figuring out what to do pretty challenging.

Anyway, will give this some more thought, and look forward to continuing to see your analyses of this as well. If this is to become a model for 21st coups, we will need a model for how to solve them that works better; and if not, there is still the historical question which is actually my bailiwick: what happened in this conjuncture that made this go so terribly awry?