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The Only Way Out For Honduras

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Imagine a parallel universe where everything is the same as here, except that on the morning of June 28, police and judges - not soldiers - showed up at the residence of the elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya.

In that parallel Honduras, the cops tell Zelaya, "Mr. President, the Supreme Court has issued us a warrant for your arrest on charges of violating the constitution by ordering an illegal referendum." Over the ensuing days and weeks, the country's other branches of government carry out an orderly succession of power, and Zelaya is given a proper trial with respect for his due process rights and the ability to confront his accusers.

The country's political scene is convulsed, but the country's institutions do their job lawfully.

In that parallel universe, we would not be talking about Honduras right now here in Washington. In fact, though we may have distaste for the tiny economic elite behind Zelaya's arrest and removal, many progressives would probably be rooting for the prosecution.

We would recall that, days before June 28, Zelaya ordered the Honduran military to facilitate a non-binding, unofficial ballot on constitutional reform scheduled for June 28, even though the courts had declared it illegal (they interpreted it as an unlawful gambit to seek re-election). When the head of the armed forces refused to defy the courts, Zelaya fired him.

After 25 years of trying to get the Honduran military out of politics, Zelaya put the armed forces at the center of a dispute with his political rivals. Anybody who favors demilitarization and healthy civil-military relations in Latin America should condemn such dangerous politicization of the military.

But never mind that now, because there was no trial and prosecution of Zelaya. We do not live in that parallel universe.

In our universe, army solders awoke the elected president of Honduras before dawn on June 28th. Still in his pajamas, Zelaya was forced at gunpoint to board a plane out of the country. Hours later, the country's Supreme Court and Congress produced the documents justifying Zelaya's removal - among them an obviously forged resignation letter from the deposed president, which was duly read on the floor of the legislature. Meanwhile the military and police declared a curfew, raided news outlets, detained Zelaya's ministers, forcefully put down protests and blocked access to international news outlets like CNN.

The June 28th coup has cast a pall over all of Latin America. If allowed to stand, it would mean a tragic break in the region's 30-year "winning streak" of transition away from military rule and dictatorship. This period has seen many attempted coups, some events that certainly resembled coups (Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1992, the removal of Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005), and indefinite reelections amid a backdrop of eroding checks and balances (Venezuela or Colombia today). But the Honduran case, with the army frog-marching the president out of the country, was a new low and a stark reminder of the "bad old days" of the height of the cold war. It is a terrible precedent.

There are credible reasons to argue that Manuel Zelaya broke Honduran law. But the de facto regime's ex-post facto claims that the coup was legal fall flat because they very egregiously broke the law too.

The Honduran constitution guarantees due process for those accused of committing crimes. It includes no mechanism for exiling Honduran citizens. It does not allow restrictions on freedom of the press. And the falsified resignation letter appears to be a bald-faced act of fraud. The de facto regime plainly acted illegally.

President Zelaya surprised us all on Monday by surreptitiously returning overland to Tegucigalpa, where he has taken refuge in Brazil's embassy to Honduras. Honduras' de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, has sworn to arrest Zelaya and put him on trial.

This is very unlikely to happen, since Zelaya is officially on Brazilian soil right now. But even if Micheletti and the Honduran security forces were somehow able to take Zelaya into custody, it would not mean that Honduras could automatically take up the "parallel universe" scenario of trial, due process and legality. That scenario faded the moment that the coup plotters abandoned legality themselves.

If both sides likely broke the law, then a solution to the Honduran coup crisis would have to include an amnesty for both sides. That is a key element of the San José Accord [PDF] proposed by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, a Nobel peace laureate and the principal mediator in the crisis.

The San José Accord would return Zelaya to the presidency in Tegucigalpa to finish his term, which ends in January. Now that Zelaya is back in the country, it should be obvious to all that Honduras' best exit from this crisis - before it devolves into a dangerous, potentially violent standoff in the capital - is a two-sided amnesty coupled with Zelaya's return to office for the next four months.

The restored president would not be able to schedule unofficial ballots on constitutional reforms. He would, however, be able to guarantee that all candidates - including his supporters, an important political current in Honduras - are free to participate in the elections scheduled for November 29, with the same abilities to assemble, raise campaign funds, and access the media as those enjoyed by all other candidates.

That in turn would give these elections the international legitimacy they lack right now: at the moment, the U.S. State Department, the OAS, and nearly all Latin American and European countries have indicated that they will not recognize the result of a vote carried out under the coup regime.

Still, the Micheletti regime resists this glaringly obvious solution. They insist that their illegal actions must stand while Zelaya's are punished, and they refuse to accept Zelaya's return, even for a paltry four months.

They have on their side the armed forces, the high court, and most of the country's tiny political and economic elite. They also have the
support of many U.S. Republicans and, apparently,
the editors of the Washington Post op-ed page, who on Tuesday published a hugely inaccurate column authored by Micheletti. With friends like these, the coup's supporters must believe that they can remain indefinitely in a parallel universe of their own making.

It is up to the international community, speaking with one voice but with the U.S. government speaking far more loudly and clearly than it has done so far, to tell the coup regime and its supporters that they are absolutely wrong and that it is time to go. What they are doing is poison for democracy and stability in Latin America, it is based on a foundation of illegality, and it must end by accepting the elected president's return and a mutual amnesty.

The amount of international pressure, especially U.S. pressure, must increase now that Zelaya is back. And it must include absolute, unequivocal clarity that an election held under the coup government's auspices will always be considered illegitimate.

Adam Isacson runs the Latin America Security Program at the Center for International Policy, where he hosts the blog "Plan Colombia and Beyond."