Honduras, a tiny country whose internal political affairs would have been previously considered insignificant, has garnered an enormous amount of international attention since the ouster of President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. On June 28, Honduran military troops forced the democratically elected leader onto a plane at gunpoint, flew him out of the country, and installed Roberto Micheletti, who was then head of the legislature, as the de facto executive.
The situation in Honduras remains extremely tense since the coup. The coup regime has shuttered two opposition media outlets, Radio Globo and Canal 36, and there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties. Human rights groups have attributed at least 10 deaths to coup crackdowns on civil society and to increased persecution since Zelaya sought refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa on Sept. 21.
While Zelaya may have been a controversial figure, and the de facto regime has tried to argue that it is operating constitutionally and within the law, governments worldwide quickly and unanimously condemned the military’s violent expatriation of the democratically elected president. The dangerous precedent this sets for the rest of the Latin America countries, many with their own unpopular governments, has placed an enormous weight on the international community to respond.
That community has united in overwhelming condemnation of the coup, creating strange hemispheric bedfellows among the likes of Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The Organization of American States officially suspended Honduras—an action that hadn’t been taken since Cuba’s membership was terminated in 1962—demonstrating the body’s unequivocal conclusion that Zelaya’s removal was illegal. The U.S., whose message faltered initially, has officially recognized that what took place was a “coup”; the State Department has cut off the visas of key coup supporters and terminated more than $30 million in non-humanitarian aid to Honduras, including $11 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation funds.
Despite this unusual, resounding agreement in the international community, there is no clear plan of action to deal with the foreign policy challenge of the de facto regime, which has resisted pressures so far. Even Oscar Arias, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the civil conflicts that ravaged Central America in the late 1980s, has been unable to overcome the de facto government’s recalcitrance. Claiming that it’s a “coup with an expiration date,” the regime has refused to negotiate, attempting instead to maintain its grip on power until the regularly scheduled elections take place on Nov. 29. They argue that the elections will reset the political stage, letting bygones be bygones.
But the Honduran people and civil society, which are being subjected to select repression, media censorship, and political violence, will surely not be able to cast a free and fair vote. An election under these tainted conditions would be a tragic blow to Honduran democracy, which has been perpetually fragile, underscored by extremely weak civic institutions.
In those countries, such as Chile and Argentina, where elections have brought the end to dictatorship, success required intensive negotiations that gave civil society a seat at the table and that were reinforced by pressure from the international community. In contrast, recognizing elections in Honduras without first restoring democracy and achieving a negotiated agreement would amount to an implicit pardon to those who took part in the coup. Worse, the international community would be condoning a democratic Catch-22—one that would set a terrible precedent for a region many thought had progressed far past an era of coup governments.
Ashley Morse is a program assistant with the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes democracy and justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.