(Editor’s note: Amends 19th paragraph to clarify the reasons behind the refusal by some governments to recognize the new leader of Honduras.)
(CNSNews.com) – Honduras took a big step away from its protracted political crisis this week when its new president was sworn in and his deposed predecessor flew into exile, but the new government still faces a challenge in winning international recognition.
Only three presidents, those of Panama, the Dominican Republic and Taiwan, attended Wednesday’s swearing-in of conservative President Porfirio Lobo. Several other regional governments sent foreign ministers.
The United States, which recognizes the new government, was represented by the assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela.
Also on Thursday, Lobo’s leftist predecessor, Manuel Zelaya, left the mission and flew to the Dominican Republic. He vowed to return someday. Zelaya was ousted five months ago and later sought refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.
Wednesday’s developments in Tegucigalpa, the capital of the small Central American country, marked a defeat for Zelaya’s regional allies, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Critics saw Chavez as a leading behind-the-scenes player in Zelaya’s bid to change the constitution to extend presidential term limits – as Chavez and several of his leftist allies have done in their own countries.
Zelaya’s move violated Honduras’ constitution and triggered a Supreme Court ruling that led to his ouster by the military. His abrupt departure, says Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Ray Walser, was “a serious blow to a key Chavez ambition: a radicalized, anti-American Honduras.”
In line with constitutional rules of succession, Zelaya was replaced by congressional speaker Roberto Micheletti, who served as interim president until the previously scheduled presidential election in November.
In the election, 62 year-old rancher Lobo of the National Party took 56 percent of the vote, easily beating his nearest rival, the candidate for the Liberal Party (to which both Zelaya and Micheletti belong.).
Zelaya’s removal was viewed by many governments, including the Obama administration, as a “coup.”
Micheletti’s interim administration came under sustained international pressure to allow Zelaya to serve out his term. The U.S. froze aid, revoked diplomats’ visas, and backed a decision by the Organization of American States (OAS) to suspend Honduras’ membership.
An accord negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias called for the reinstatement of Zelaya, the creation of a national unity government, and a “truth commission” to look into the circumstances of his ouster.
But lawmakers in December overwhelmingly voted against reinstating Zelaya. The interim government refused to back down despite the outside pressure, choosing to hold out until the date for the formal start of the new presidential term.
Lobo has pledged to work to promote reconciliation between Hondurans who supported Zelaya – many or most of whom boycotted the election – and those who applauded his ousting.
During his inaugural speech, the new president signed a decree, approved earlier by lawmakers, granting amnesty to Zelaya and shielding from future prosecution anyone involved in his removal from office.
The move drew criticism from Amnesty International. “Failure to sanction abuses that took place during the coup d’etat could give a green light to further violations in Honduras,” said the group’s Americas program deputy director, Kerrie Howard.
‘Bible and constitution’
Micheletti, who will now return to Congress, attended a special Mass Wednesday at a church in Tegucigalpa, where said he wanted to thank God and his supporters for their help during the crisis.
He urged Lobo to govern with the Bible in his right hand and the constitution in his left, and called on the international community to support the new government, saying that Honduras had done nothing but defend its democracy.
Governments refusing to recognize Lobo base their stance on the argument that he was elected in a vote organized under what they considered to be an “illegitimate” interim administration.
In the region, they are led by Venezuela and its leftist allies, as well as members of the Mercosur trade bloc, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, protested during an OAS council meeting on Wednesday that Lobo’s inauguration had completed “the successful circle designed by the coup plotters in Honduras.”
Critics of the OAS decision to freeze Honduras’ membership over what they considered essentially an internal constitutional matter contrasted the move with the regional body’s decision just months earlier to scrap a 47 year-old resolution that expelled Cuba for its alignment with the communist bloc.
With its member states divided over the issue – those recognizing the new government include Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador – it remains unclear how the OAS envisages dealing with Lobo.
OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said last week developments in Honduras would have to be “evaluated by countries.”
“In the case of the OAS, a process of gradual return of Honduras to the democratic community will have to be initiated,” he said. “We hope it will happen as soon as possible, and we are ready to help in whatever is necessary.”
Regional powerhouse Brazil’s role will be particularly important.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim on Thursday seemed to leave the door open for a shift in the future, saying that his country’s position remained unchanged “for the moment” but it would watch how Lobo governs. “Everything depends on the new president.”
Meanwhile, Lobo faces not just a struggle for recognition but also severe economic challenges. Even before the political crisis and punitive steps by the international community Honduras already had the highest proportion of people living below the poverty line in Central America and, according to the CIA World Factbook, “extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high un- and under-employment.”
“The costs of Honduras’s isolation have been substantial,” says Walser. “It has created a climate of uncertainty for businesses and investors. Honduras also suffers from generalized economic recession and a loss of remittance earnings that undercut its already fragile economy.”
Walser said the Obama administration must quickly end sanctions against Honduras, including the denial of visas. It should also press for the country’s return to the OAS, and international recognition.