Honduras's unhappy coup

Porfirio Lobo's government may have won some recognition, but the June coup has had terrible consequences for Hondurans

By Vincent Bevins
The Guardian UK

Honduras' president-elect Porfirio Lobo speaks in Tegucigalpa. (Photo: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters.)
Honduras' president-elect Porfirio Lobo speaks in Tegucigalpa. (Photo: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters.)

The seven-month political crisis has ended in Honduras. That is, the supporters of the ousted president Manuel Zelaya, and the opponents of the 28 June military coup, have lost. Yesterday Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was sworn into the presidency. The anti-coup opposition chose to boycott the election, and countries such as Brazil and Argentina still refuse to recognise the legitimacy of a government elected in a poll organised by a coup government. But the opposition will be sidelined from official political participation for the next four years.

Lobo's government has garnered the critical mass of recognition — crucially, including from the United States — he needs to be able to run the country. This is despite being elected in a poll which offered no anti-coup candidate, was not recognised by many governments, and whose turnout numbers were probably misreported. Most recently, poor Central American governments reliant on trade with Honduras have grudgingly stepped forward to recognise Lobo's government. After a half-year of wearying talks and impotent protest, it seems they've reasoned they have little choice.

Honduras' new gov't finds nation 'bankrupt'

Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras' new administration began its term Thursday saying the nation is bankrupt and will likely need international financial assistance to recover from months of diplomatic isolation over its June coup.

The first day of the new government also was marked by early morning police raids that resulted in 41 people being detained and several weapons seized in the capital.

Newly inaugurated President Porfirio Lobo swore in his Cabinet, including Finance Minister William Chong, who said the administration of interim president Roberto Micheletti left office with only about $50 million in government coffers.

Chong said the already impoverished country was bankrupt following months of isolation and cutoffs of international aid prompted by the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in a political fight over changing the constitution. Zelaya gave up his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy and left Honduras on Wednesday, the final day of the term he was elected to.

Chong said the Lobo administration will have to approach international lending agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for loans.

In Tegucigalpa, the capital, police carried out 23 searches that led to the detentions and the capture of weapons that included a grenade launcher. Police Commissioner Leonel Sauceda did not specify what other kinds of weapons were seized or what charges those detained might face. It was not clear if those detained were Zelaya's supporters.

Lobo, who won the November presidential election that had been scheduled before Zelaya was toppled, spent the early part of the day talking with foreign diplomats who attended his inauguration Wednesday.

Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said it was important for Honduras to create a truth commission to investigate the events that led to the coup.

Speaking in a teleconference from Washington, Valenzuela said Lobo "has put together a broad Cabinet, including even candidates who ran against him. What is pending is the last step, which is the truth commission."

Some measure of normality returned, at least in the several blocks around the Brazilian Embassy, where Zelaya holed up after sneaking back into the country in September.

Once cordoned off by soldiers, the upscale area was opened to traffic again Thursday, following Zelaya's departure to the Dominican Republic.

Despite well-intentioned interventions from the international community for the restitution of Zelaya, he finished his elected term of office holed up in the Brazilian embassy, surrounded by the military. He has gone into temporary exile in the Dominican Republic, and is awaiting a way to return to his home country.

The new government is likely to soon pardon itself for all crimes committed during the coup. And though dissidents are still murdered or intimidated out of the country — opposition activists often organise using fake profiles on Facebook — protest marches have not recently been met with the harsh repression they were previously used to. One suspects this is because the government no longer fears they pose a real threat.

Opposition leaders don't have a clear plan to change their lot in the short term. David Romero, of opposition Radio Globo, said he simply hopes Lobo governs better than expected: "The coup-makers have him surrounded, but I think he might be able to escape." He told me this in the office where he jumped from his window to escape a military raid of his station, which forced him to transmit online from a clandestine location for months. The official line of the resistance, according to its leaders Carlos Reyes and Juan Barahona, is simply refuse to recognise Lobo's government and wait for the next election.

But if the opposition to the coup has lost, so has everyone else. Cynically, opponents of coups could take comfort that others in the region should be discouraged from repeating the experiment, due to the tragic state of Honduras. The economy of the already impoverished country is in ruins. Starved of crucial international aid, tourism, and trade, the economy shrank by 3-4% last year. This is a bigger drop than that following the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Here, of course, the main victims are the country's poor, far removed from the political battles in the capital.

The country now faces crippling international isolation. Two weeks ago the pro-coup daily El Heraldo reported, almost triumphantly, that 19 countries were set to recognise Pepe Lobo's government. The UN has 192 countries. More countries are likely to come forward as Lobo is pressured into reconciliation, but economic catastrophe and international isolation seem a steep price to pay to stop a president serving the last six months of his term because he wanted to have a poll on constitutional reform. Unless, of course, political elites were afraid it was likely to pass — the suspicion that this was the real reasoning behind the coup will long be held by supporters of Zelaya, and such divisions will be another of the long-term consequences of the coup.

The country is deeply divided. Tegucigalpa is covered in anti-coup graffiti, and anti-coup protestors yesterday staged a march through the city yesterday to the site where Zelaya flew out of the country. Intelligent and well-meaning people exist who think Zelaya violated the terms of his presidency. Even if their case is rather flimsy, they must recognise that those who hold the opposite view have been pushed aside in an extremely undemocratic way. And it's also clear that the decision to act against Zelaya — and the way it was carried out — have had terrible consequences for the country's people.

To the extent that they are sincere, Lobo's pushes for reconciliation should be encouraged. But real reconciliation will prove extremely difficult. Part of the country remains excluded from decision-making, and has just suffered military repression and the humiliation of a president imprisoned for months in his own country — and this on top of the deep economic divisions that caused Zelaya to move to the left in the first place.

There was a time in Latin America when you could perpetrate a coup d'├ętat, shoot a few protesters, and simply move on. The current plight of Honduras should show this is no longer the case.

28 January 2010 — Return to cover.