Zelaya’s Return to Honduras: A Step Forward, But Will Political Repression Continue?

Former Honduran President Zelaya’s return home today has important implications for the Western Hemisphere that, we can predict, will be widely overlooked.  Zelaya was ousted from the presidency when he was kidnapped at gunpoint by the military on June 28, 2009.  Although no hard evidence has yet emerged that the U.S. government was directly involved in his overthrow, the Obama administration did everything it could do to help the coup government survive and then to legitimate itself through elections that most of the rest of the hemisphere, and the world, rejected as neither free nor fair.

Zelaya’s return represents a partial reversal of that coup d’Etat and Washington’s efforts to consolidate it, just as President Aristide’s return to Haiti after seven years in exile, on March 18th — despite furious efforts by the Obama Administration, and even President Obama himself, to prevent it — is a partial reversal of the 2004 U.S.-organized coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Haiti.  And it is another demonstration of how the Western Hemisphere has changed: the agreement for Zelaya’s return was mediated through the governments of Venezuela and Colombia, with no U.S. involvement or even lip-service support until it was over.  Instead, the mediation process had the unanimous support of Latin America and the Caribbean, who endorsed it through their new organization, CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).  CELAC contains all the countries of the Organization of American States except the U.S. and Canada.  It was formed in February 2010, partly as a response to Washington’s manipulation of the OAS in the aftermath of the Honduran coup.

The Obama administration lost a lot of trust throughout the Hemisphere as a result of its support for the Honduran coup government, and so it was not surprising that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was smart enough to endorse the Cartagena agreement (for Zelaya’s return) after it was signed.  She had been lobbying, without success for the past year and a half, to get Honduras admitted back into the Organization of American States, from which it was kicked out after the coup.  It is assumed that this accord will pave the way for Honduras’ re-admission, so she can spin it as a victory for Washington.  But it clearly is not.

The accord met some of the demands of President Zelaya and his allies, but not others.  It allows for the participation of the National Front for Popular Resistance, which struggled against the coup and subsequent repression, as a legal political party.  It also states that people can organize plebiscites of the kind that Zelaya was overthrown for organizing.  And it has guarantees for the safety and security of not only Zelaya, but others who fled after the coup and remain in exile; as well as non-enforceable human rights guarantees.

And that is the big problem: human rights.  Less than a year ago Human Rights Watch noted that “Honduras has made little progress toward addressing the serious human rights abuses since the 2009 coup.”  It cited the cases of eight journalists and ten members of the National Front for Popular Resistance who had been murdered since President Porfirio Lobo took office, as well as the impunity for the human rights abuses committed by the coup government.  If anything, the repression has gotten worse since then.

Three Honduran journalists have been shot since May 11; two of them, TV station owner Luis Mendoza and television reporter Francisco Medina, were killed.  Paramilitary groups have killed over 40 campesinos since Lobo has been in office.  Trade unionists have also been killed, including Ilse Ivania Velásquez Rodríguez, a striking teacher whom Honduran police shot in the face, at close range, with a tear gas canister in March.

The OAS will likely vote on Wednesday to re-admit Honduras, but there will be some struggle inside the organization to attach some conditions.  It goes without saying that Washington will push for unconditional re-admission.  President Correa of Ecuador, himself the victim of a coup attempt in September, has publicly stated his opposition to the re-admission of Honduras altogether, partly on the grounds of the impunity for the people who carried out the coup and post-coup repression.  Dozens of Honduras’ human rights organizations and social movements have similar views.

But it is better to have Zelaya back in the country than outside of it.  He will have a voice that can possibly break through the right-wing media monopoly, and if he uses that to oppose the repression there, it can have a positive impact.  As elsewhere in the hemisphere, the media — controlled largely by wealthy elites — is a major obstacle to progress.  In Honduras it mostly supported the coup and promoted the falsehood that Zelaya and his supporters were foreign agents, much like the propaganda of the Arab dictators facing demands for democracy in the Middle East.  These themes spilled over to the international media, where they remain visible to this day.

On the positive side, it is good to see Latin American countries taking control of the mediation, with Washington relegated to the sidelines.  The biggest mistake they made after the coup was to allow Hillary Clinton, along with Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, to hijack the mediation process.  Clinton’s goal was the exact opposite of restoring democracy in Honduras, and she succeeded.  There will be many struggles ahead for the Honduran pro-democracy movement, and they will need a lot of solidarity and help from outside, especially in opposing the repression.  But this accord is at least a step in the right direction.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.  This article was first published in the Guardian on 28 May 2011 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.

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