The Little Coup that Couldn't

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Oct. 29, Honduras' de facto regime finally agreed to allow Congress to vote on whether to "return executive power to its state prior to June 28"--a convoluted way of saying "reinstate President Manuel Zelaya." Conceding to international and national pressure, the Honduran coup appears to be facing its final days.

June 28 was the date when the Armed Forces kidnapped the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, and forcibly exiled him to Costa Rica. If the agreement brokered this week holds, Honduran society will have turned the ugly precedent of a modern-day military coup d'etat into an example of the strength of nonviolent grassroots resistance.

The coup regime has held power for over four months. When the entire international community condemned the coup, many observers thought it would cave. It didn't. When those nations went on to apply sanctions, many believed it would crumple. It didn't. When over half the Honduran population called for its demise, many were sure it would back down. It didn't. Instead, a handful of the nation's wealthiest businessmen and politicians backed by the armed forces held democracy at gunpoint for 123 days.

During that time the little coup chugged on, emitting puffs of bravado when challenged and running over people on its track. Some twenty-one members of the resistance movement were murdered by security forces or hitmen. National and international human rights organizations were overwhelmed by the macabre task of documenting cases of human rights violations. The closure of independent media, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detentions, torture and persecution made many Hondurans feel like they were living in a flashback to the military dictatorships of the '80s. In many ways, they were.

A Breakthrough of Sorts

President Zelaya expressed "satisfaction" at the agreement. Zelaya's negotiating team had agreed long before on the terms of the revised San Jose Accords, and negotiations were hung up on the coup's refusal to allow reinstatement of the president.

The terms include reinstatement of Zelaya, creation of a government of national reconciliation, suspension of a possible vote on holding a Constitutional Assembly until after Jan. 27, when Zelaya's term ends, no amnesty for political crimes on either side, establishment of a Verification Commission to follow-up the agreement and a Truth Commission to investigate events leading up to and after the coup and revoking sanctions.

The leader of the de facto regime, Roberto Micheletti, issued a statement Thursday night saying, "I am pleased to announce that a few minutes ago I authorized my negotiating team to sign an agreement that marks the beginning of the end of the political situation in the country."

Micheletti voiced no humility in defeat. He applauded his own largesse, saying that "accepting this proposal represents a significant concession on the part of this government." He added, "But we understand that our people demand that we turn the page of history in these difficult moments. For that reason, I have decided to support this new proposal to achieve a final accord as soon as possible."

Micheletti reversed months of intransigence on the issue of Zelaya's return to power. He ended up signing essentially the same accord he has rejected since talks began in San Jose, Costa Rica in early July.

Who knows what magic words were uttered to change the opinion of one of the most stubborn dictators in recent history. But whatever they were, they probably came out of Tom Shannon's mouth.

For months, both sides have noted that the U.S. government is the only entity with the power to break the impasse, due to Honduran military and economic dependency on the United States. In a press conference held in Tegucigalpa shortly before the agreement, Assistant Secretary of State Shannon explicitly confirmed that the sticking point was "political will" (the coup's unwillingness to accept Zelaya's reinstatement) and that the U.S. government was there to induce that political will.

From our point of view, the deal's on the table. This is not really a question of drafting or of shaping a paragraph. It's really a question of political will. And that's why it was so important, I think, for us to come to Honduras at this moment to make clear to all Hondurans that we believe the political will that is displayed and expressed by Honduras's leaders should respect the democratic vocation of the Honduran people and the democratic aspirations of the Honduran people, and the desire of Honduras to return to a larger democratic community in the Americas... And that's why we came, to underscore our interest in ensuring that the political will is there to do a deal.

Shannon mentioned legitimizing the elections and future access to development funding from international financial institutions as carrots (or sticks) in the negotiations:

...An agreement within the national dialogue opens a large space for members of the international community to assist Honduras in this election process, to observe the elections, and to have a process that is peaceful and which produces leadership that is widely recognized throughout the hemisphere as legitimate. This will be important as a way of creating a pathway for Honduras to reintegrate itself into the Inter-American community, to not - and not just the OAS, but also the Inter-American Development Bank and its other institutions, and to access development funding through the international financial institutions.

It worked--at least in the formal stages, as the world now awaits implementation. The State Department was in a celebratory mood following the success of the high-level delegation consisting of Shannon, deputy Craig Kelly and the White House NSC representative for the Western Hemisphere, Dan Restrepo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a special press conference from Islamabad announcing the breakthrough in negotiations in Honduras:

I want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement. I also congratulate Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for the important role he has played in fashioning the San Jose process and the OAS for its role in facilitating the successful round of talks. I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue.

This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy as embodied in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. I'm very proud that I was part of the process, that the United States was instrumental in the process. But I'm mostly proud of the people of Honduras who have worked very hard to have this matter resolved peacefully.

After the dust clears, historians will map the course of the little coup that couldn't.

But from this observer's view, negotiation and dialogue played a minor role in the apparent resolution of this phase of the crisis. In the end, the mobilization of Honduran society sent a clear message that "normal" government would not be possible and even more widespread insurrection loomed unless a return to democracy reopened institutional paths. International pressures and sanctions played a far greater role in cornering the coup than the technical terms of an accord that is vague, difficult to implement and contentious.

The last-minute decision of the coup to sign also begs the question: if this is what it took--a little strong-arming from the State Department's A-team--why didn't they do it before twenty-one people were killed?

The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

Leaving those questions to the historians, there is reason to celebrate but the situation now poses tremendous challenges. If it weren't for the extraordinary levels of commitment, participation and awareness generated by the democratic crisis over the past months, the challenges Honduran society now faces could well be deemed impossible.

The first is to implement the agreement. Although the decision to restore Zelaya to power must receive a non-binding opinion from the Supreme Court and then be approved in Congress, it appears to be a done deal. Zelaya's team reportedly had the support of members from the UD Party, 20 members of the Liberal Party and more recently the support of the conservative National Party to revoke the decree that was issued to justify his removal from office. That decree was originally accompanied by a forged letter of resignation that was immediately denounced.

The second is to restore constitutional order, consolidating the presidency, the new cabinet and state institutions.

This is a mammoth task. Zelaya knows he can't just step back into the Presidential Palace and assume that society has returned to its pre-coup state. Under the terms of the agreement, he must form a new cabinet with the participation of coup supporters. Anger runs high and this will be a controversial and delicate undertaking. He must review the damage done to national coffers under the coup regime. He must reestablish a relationship with the Armed Forces and the other branches of government. Many institutions have undergone purges of personnel under the coup and must be reestablished and work to regain legitimacy.

Third, is to organize elections for Nov. 29 or a later agreed-upon date.

If the original date is not changed, that leaves less than a month before nationwide elections. Imagine a nation moving from the complete breakdown of its democratic system and institutions, to campaigns, to elections in less than thirty days. Anti-coup candidates had pulled out, other campaigns had been met with protests, and now the problem of the logistics of organizing elections raises serious issues, let alone legal, social and political obstacles.

The timeline is critical to the process. Zelaya told AFP that the timeline is under discussion and pointed out a concern that has been growing among international organizations and the Honduran public: if reinstatement and the return to democratic order do not happen immediately, the elections scheduled for Nov. 29 will be in jeopardy. His return, he noted, "must be well before the elections to be able to validate them."

In fact, despite the breakthrough, the legitimacy of the elections is already in jeopardy. If the reinstatement process drags out, as the negotiations did, Hondurans worry they could find themselves in the middle of an electoral farce. Even if all goes smoothly, nothing will be easy or "normal." The United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union had all announced they would not send elections observers to coup-sponsored elections, as a refusal to recognize their legitimacy but also citing the logistical difficulties of putting together effective teams on such short notice. Now the OAS has stated it is attempting to put together a an observation team but the European Union had previously said it requires six weeks to put together such an elections mission and could no longer consider it.

Honduran law provides for a three-month campaign period prior to the vote so it would need to be modified to accommodate a Nov. 29 election. Even if there were an immediate halt to serious human rights violations--many of which are essential to free and fair elections, such as freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of assembly--they leave wounds and gaps. As the agreement was being hammered out, coup security forces once again attacked a peaceful demonstrators.

Fourth, will be to continue moving toward a vote on holding a Constitutional Assembly.

This demand is not going away, despite the agreement between Zelaya and Micheletti not to raise the issue until after Jan. 27. This point of the accords caused Juan Barahona, a leader of the National Front Against the Coup, to resign from the Zelaya negotiating team because it has become central to the movement not only to restore, but to expand, Honduran democracy.

A Constitutional Assembly is now more necessary than ever. It would serve to repair the contradictions in the current constitution that coup-mongers exploited to rupture the democratic order, and channel the legitimate demands of organizations of peasants, indigenous peoples, urban poor, women, youth and other groups pushed to the margins of a vastly unequal economic and political system. Since the mobilization of popular sectors in resistance to the coup, it is not possible to conceive of a free and stable society without proceeding with a Constitutional Assembly.

Zelaya was quick to point out that obstacles remain. "This is a first step to bringing about my reinstatement that will have to go through several stages. I'm moderately optimistic," he told AFP news service from the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been holed up since Sept. 21.

The reinstatement of President Zelaya will likely be voted on soon. Emails from the Honduran Internet groups that have formed a virtual community to debate and decry the military coup in their country, now demonstrate a range of feelings, from jubilation to skepticism. Elections pose a huge challenge to anti-coup forces since a wide range of opinions play out within the diverse National Front Against the Coup.

Hondurans now move into the next phase of a long struggle to rebuild and broaden democracy. The challenge includes holding free and fair elections in the short term, but also includes critical issues of expanding democratic rights and participation beyond the elections and the system of representation. They must find ways to heal deep wounds and confront an economic and political crisis that is far from over.

If the coup finally falls and Zelaya is restored to power, Honduran society and the international community will score an historic victory. It must be remembered though, that the victory is a defensive one--it marks the successful rollback of anti-democratic forces in a small but determined nation.

Those forces will not desist--in Honduras or in other places where democracy is vulnerable and nefarious interests are strong. Until democracy in the fullest sense--participatory and dedicated to nonviolence--gains ground, the world could be stuck in long battles to defend against attacks instead of moving forward toward societies where this kind of offensive against the rule of law can no longer occur.