Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Analysts Call Coup a "Return to the Past"

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - Sunday’s coup d’etat shows that in Honduras, democracy – which was restored in 1982 – is still hemmed in by the military’s alliance with the economic and political powers-that-be, according to local analysts.

The entire region immediately condemned the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, who was dragged out of bed by the military and flown on an air force plane to Costa Rica still in his pajamas.

"The era of instability and military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s is apparently not a thing of the past as we had thought, since it was a civic-military alliance that was responsible for this setback to democracy – the ouster of President Zelaya," analyst Rolando Sierra, a historian at the public National Autonomous University of Honduras, told IPS.

The history of military coups in this Central American country has been marked by collusion with political sectors linked to the traditional Liberal and National parties.

Zelaya took office in 2006 as the Liberal Party candidate. But shortly afterwards he alienated his fellow party members when he took a turn to the left. His support base now consists of leftists and social and human rights organisations.

The coup was carried out in the early hours of Sunday morning, the day a non-binding referendum was to be held to ask Hondurans whether or not to hold a formal vote, parallel to the November general elections, on creating a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Congress, nearly all of whose members are opposed to Zelaya, declared that the informal vote planned for Sunday ran counter to the constitution, which forbids plebiscites and referendums in an election year. The courts, the electoral authority, the attorney general’s office and the office of the inspector-general also declared the referendum unconstitutional.

The legislators claimed that Zelaya’s aim was to reform the constitution to allow presidents to run for a second term.

After Zelaya was forced into exile, the legislature replaced him with Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress, who under the constitution is next in line to act as president should the office become vacant. Micheletti belongs to the Liberal Party, but is opposed to the ousted president.

"Apparently we have been unable to reach a more evolved stage of democracy. The coup d’etat demonstrates that we are still a fragile democracy, and what we are seeing is a return to the past," said Sierra.

Sociologist Mirna Flores commented to IPS that "a political conflict can’t be resolved by means of weapons: those were the ‘solutions’ provided by authoritarianism."

"What we are observing is a crisis of the political party system, where the leaders of the political forces are refusing to accept even the tiniest of openings to an expansion of democratic participation," she said.

Honduras today is seen as "the anti-democracy in the region, because what has happened is a throwback to the history of military coups in Latin America," said Flores.

The coup was repudiated by all of the governments in the Americas, including the administration of Barack Obama in the U.S., and by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

At a special meeting Sunday, the OAS Permanent Council adopted a resolution "vehemently" condemning the coup d’etat and demanding the "immediate, safe and unconditional return of President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales to his constitutional functions."

The Permanent Council also called a special session of the OAS General Assembly, to be held at the organisation’s headquarters in Washington, DC on Tuesday.

Leaders of the countries belonging to the Central American Integration System (SICA), along with Insulza and representatives of the Mexican government, were discussing the situation Monday in Nicaragua.

The presidents of the member nations of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) bloc also condemned the coup at an emergency meeting in Nicaragua Monday, in which Zelaya took part.

Honduras' eight ALBA partners – Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela – recalled their ambassadors from Tegucigalpa until Zelaya is reinstated.

The streets of the Honduran capital were deserted Monday, after protests held by hundreds of Zelaya supporters Sunday, especially members of the left-wing Democratic Unification (UD) party, who burned tires and held a vigil outside of the presidential palace.

On Sunday, the army declared a curfew and cut off electricity, while planes, tanks and helicopters patrolled the city.

Bertha Oliva of the Committee of Families of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) said arrest warrants have been issued for at least 14 activists.

"People have been illegally detained, including Zelaya administration officials. And with respect to freedom of expression, the public TV station Canal 8 was closed, and the rest of the media, especially on-line outlets, remain subject to censorship," Oliva told IPS.

Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas was expelled to Mexico on Sunday night after being detained and held for several hours at an air force base, said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, speaking from Managua, where Rodas ended up.

Gladys Lanza, the head of the "Visitación Padilla" Women’s Peace Movement, told IPS that her group decried "any plot" by the country’s elites "to break with the state of law that the people have built up over so many years."

The minister of the presidency, Enrique Flores Lanza, one of the eight cabinet ministers who are in hiding, called for the creation of a peaceful civic movement to demand Zelaya’s return.

The analysts who spoke to IPS said that while the military’s role in the crisis was perhaps not surprising, the participation of the political parties was. "What kind of democratic parties are we talking about, if they took part in a coup? It looks like we are lacking democratic socio-political actors, which is disturbing for society and the country at large," said Sierra.

He said it looked like the democratic institutional framework built up over the last 27 years had collapsed.

In the mid-1990s, Honduras created the National Forum for Convergence to open up a political dialogue among a broad range of social, political and economic sectors. But because of a standoff between the executive and legislative branches, "it never worked, it never took a stance on anything, and it simply became invisible," he criticised.

Lawmaker Toribio Aguilera of the National Innovation and Unity – Social Democracy Party (PINU-SD) told IPS that "something regrettable has happened, which was painful for democracy, but necessary.

"The former president left no alternative, because all possible solutions were proposed and discussed, but he continued to break the law, and no one is above the law or the constitution," said the legislator.

Congress decided Sunday that Micheletti will be acting president for the last six months of Zelaya’s term, and that the November elections will go ahead as planned.

Zelaya, in the meantime, strongly denied that he had stepped down for "health reasons," as stated in a letter he supposedly wrote, which was read out in Congress Sunday.

The observers consulted by IPS predicted continued uncertainty and instability, because the new government appointed by Congress would not only have to achieve internal consolidation and bring about real changes, but would also have to withstand the pressure from the international community.

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