Honduras will hold a presidential election tomorrow, five months after a coup ejected President Manuel Zelaya and a military-backed interim government took over in Tegucigalpa. Back in September, the Obama administration’s State Department declared that the U.S. government could not recognize the elections’ result under those circumstances.
A presidential election is currently scheduled for November. That election must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner. It must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise. At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections. A positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed.
Since then, Zelaya sneaked back into the country, an accord to establish a unity government was signed but then ignored, and little else changed. But 3 weeks ago, the Obama administration’s position took an abrupt about-face: the U.S. government now intends to recognize the result of tomorrow’s vote.
Today’s Washington Post editorial page applauds this decision.
Elections have often been used to restore constitutional order in unstable countries; they brought a peaceful end to Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship in Chile and to the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In the case of Honduras, the election solution is particularly appropriate, since one had been scheduled before Mr. Zelaya was arrested and illegally deported from the country in June.
The temptation to “shake the Etch-a-Sketch” and just start over with post-election Honduras is understandable. But there are very strong reasons why the United States must not rush to confer recognition on the government that emerges from tomorrow’s vote, or to restore full aid and drop sanctions.
1. The people who carried out the June 28 coup will have gotten exactly what they wanted. The message will be that “crime does pay.” This is a terrible message for Latin America – and especially Central America – where democracy is colliding with economies and political systems that have traditionally concentrated wealth and power, including military power, in very few hands. While Manuel Zelaya was hardly a dynamic social movement leader, Honduras’s tiny elite viewed him as a threat and removed him, using the military, through extra-legal means. Elites throughout the region who are unhappy with elected leaders (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Paraguay come to mind, but there are several others) will view the U.S. government recognition of tomorrow’s elections as a capitulation. They will know that if they pull off a coup of their own, the United States’ opposition will be brittle and quickly reversed upon the slightest pretext.
2. The conditions for a fair vote were not in place. Determining the legitimacy of elections requires more than just observing what happens on election day. In the months before the voting, were some parties or candidates unable to assemble, organize and campaign peacefully? Did they have difficulty gaining fair access to the media? Were supporters of some candidates or political tendencies subject to official repression?
Here are links to several eyewitness reports indicating that the answer to these questions is “yes.” Honduras’s 2009 election campaign took place in a climate of fear in which media outlets were shuttered, candidates were put at unfair disadvantages, political activists were intimidated, and examples of military repression were frequent. These reports indicate that the Honduran elections do not meet the standards of Article 3 and 4 of the 2001 OAS Democratic Charter.
- November 27, Amnesty International: Stock pile of tear gas grenades in Honduras triggers fears of human rights abuses
- November 26, OAS: Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Expresses Its Deep Concern Regarding the Situation of Freedom of Expression in Honduras
- November 25, Washington Office on Latin America / Latin America Working Group: Honduran Presidential Elections November 29th: Basic Conditions for Free and Fair Elections Do Not Exist
- November 20, May I Speak Freely Media: Fear and Loathing in Honduras: Elections Under Repression
- November 18, Amnesty International: Amnesty International visits Honduras to assess human rights situation
- October 30, Human Rights Watch: Honduras: Investigate Abuses, Repeal Repressive Measures
- September 29, OAS: The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Condemns the Suspension of Guarantees in Honduras and the Violations of the Right to Freedom of Expression
- September 28, Human Rights Watch: Honduras: Restore Press Freedom Immediately
- September 28, Committee to Protect Journalists: Honduras must allow pro-Zelaya broadcasters to reopen
- August 21, OAS: Preliminary Observations on the IACHR Visit to Honduras
- August 19, Amnesty International: Honduras: Human rights crisis threatens as repression increases
3. Recognizing the elections will put the United States at odds with most of the hemisphere. For the reasons above, the list of other countries planning to recognize the Honduran election result is small: it includes Costa Rica, Panama, perhaps Colombia, and few, if any, others. The Organization of American States will not be recognizing the result. If the Obama administration bucks the regional consensus, it will be viewed throughout the hemisphere as a return to the calculating unilateralism that so damaged perceptions of the United States during the Bush administration.
Seven months ago, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama built much goodwill with promises of greater collaboration and consultation, especially with larger states like Brazil and Mexico. That goodwill – already drained by the administration’s handling of its military agreement with Colombia – will all but disappear if the United States goes it alone on Honduras.
Recognizing the Honduran elections is shortsighted and counterproductive – in sum, a terrible idea. But indefinite non-recognition of Honduras is not an attractive option, either. What should the United States do, then? George Vickers of the Open Society Institute lays out some guidelines in a November 25 post to Foreign Policy’s website.
[D]on’t bless these elections and walk away. Instead, Washington should maintain its suspension of government-to-government assistance and not recognize the newly elected regime until there is a full restoration of civil liberties and steps are taken to prosecute human rights abuses. Next, the Obama team should work with the Organization of American States and other democracies — the vast majority of which is reluctant to endorse these elections — to find a way to bring Honduras back into the international community. For starters, if the new government is to recover any semblance of legitimacy, it will need to ensure that adequate conditions exist for a broad and pluralistic debate and dialogue, including with respect to any constitutional issues. Moreover, such a dialogue should be seen as responding to the legitimate rights and concerns of Honduran citizens, rather than being branded as treason, as is customary for the coup government today.
Whether through a rewrite of their constitution or some other process, Hondurans – of all political stripes – need to work this out, with help from the international community. If the people running Honduras instead decide to crack down further and exclude other voices, the United States cannot reward them with recognition and aid.