Honduras coup to save status quo spurs change

May 27, 2011 - 5:14 PM
Honduras Zelaya Return

A vendor displays T-shirts with images of Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Friday May 27, 2011. Supporters are making preparations for the Saturday return of the deposed president who was forced out of the country in his pajamas at gunpoint on June 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The 2009 coup that was staged to maintain the interests of Honduras' political and business elite in the end may have created a window for change in one of the Americas' poorest countries, where more than 65 percent of the people live in poverty.

Deposed former President Manuel Zelaya is set to return home Saturday to a place that has enacted many of the changes he was advocating when he was whisked out of the country in his pajamas at gunpoint on June 28, 2009.

A congress dead set against Zelaya's plan to hold a public referendum on whether to change the constitution has since amended the constitution to allow just that. Under an agreement signed last week to allow Zelaya's safe return, the man who was considered so dangerous to democracy that he had to be removed by the military will now be allowed to form his own political party.

"If Zelaya does have a significant share of political support, and that's a big 'if', this agreement would spell the end to the long-standing and very rigid two-party system in Honduras," said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "The two-party system is central to the political status quo that they attempted to protect with the coup."

In the end, the agreement that allows the safe and free return of Zelaya after 16 months in exile shows just how much everyone wanted the political crisis to go away. Honduras wanted back into the international community, specifically the Organization of American States, while the U.S. and Latin American countries wanted the problem off their agendas.

Even before negotiations for Zelaya's return began in earnest in April, Honduras had already made several concessions to international pressure, first amending the constitution in February to allow public referendums and then in March dismissing arrest warrants for Zelaya, who still faced charges of fraud and falsifying documents.

Earlier this month, a Honduran court dropped the charges altogether.

"Zelaya is still a very shady character," said Jairo Velasquez, international relations professor at La Sabana University in Bogota, Colombia. "But for a country under the illusion of advancing and no longer being isolated on the continent, they had to make certain concessions, including allowing Zelaya to return to Honduras without being prosecuted."

Zelaya was removed early on a Sunday morning by the military after ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum he scheduled for that day, asking Hondurans if they favored changing the constitution.

His detractors claimed he wanted to hijack the democratic process so he could be re-elected. Zelaya has denied that was his intention. Re-election is something the Honduran constitution still prohibits.

But what his opponents may have really feared was Zelaya's increasingly close relationship with leftist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who had changed his country's constitution to stay in power, and Zelaya's speeches invoking socialism in a country of 8 million run by a small group of capitalists.

Zelaya "generated mistrust among important sectors of our society, such as military and business, because of his expressions of solidarity with Hugo Chavez," said Edmundo Orellana, Zelaya's foreign minister.

After he was deposed, everyone from the U.S. to the OAS tried to broker Zelaya's return to finish out his term. He holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa, for three months until after his successor, Porfirio Lobo, won the regularly scheduled presidential election and took office in January 2010. Lobo allowed Zelaya safe passage out of the country to the Dominican Republic.

Honduran leaders remained stubborn, while other Latin American countries refused to recognize Lobo's democratically elected government until the Zelaya issue was resolved.

"At some point they realized that this wasn't going to go away," Casas-Zamora said. "The U.S. and Latin American countries just grew tired of this whole situation and realized that the exclusion of Honduras from the OAS just didn't make sense."

Finally last fall, Lobo asked Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, a fellow conservative, if he could help get Honduras back into the OAS, according to Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.

Holguin, meanwhile, approached her Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, on the question of returning Zelaya to Honduras.

Colombia and Venezuela started negotiating on behalf of Lobo and Zelaya in April, seeking concessions from each side.

By last Sunday, the countries' two foreign ministers had worked out a deal that called for an end to the persecution of Zelaya and his supporters, and his safe return to Honduras; outlined Honduras' constitutional guarantee of public referendums to reform laws; required respect for human rights and the investigation of possible violations; and called for a guarantee that Zelaya supporters can participate in Honduras' political life as a formal party.

The U.S., once a major hemispheric power that could dictate what happened in small Central American countries, was happy to watch the negotiations from the sidelines.

"We had one (leader) of the left and another of the right with a common goal," said Honduran Ambassador to the U.S. Jorge Hernandez. "It was interesting because with this type of pragmatic, intelligent balance, we could make Latin America solve its own problems."

What Zelaya could not do during his tenure he can do now with the support of his successor, Lobo.

"What was bad under Zelaya yesterday, now is good under Lobo," said Eulogio Chavez, leader of the National Front of the Popular Resistance, the group that supports Zelaya and can become a political party under the deal. "The oligarchy, which funded the coup, stole the ideas of Zelaya that Lobo now has set in motion."

Lobo said he doesn't see a contradiction.

"That's life," he said recently at the close of a business forum. "One does not govern for today. One governs so that tomorrow they can say how well you did."

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.