The four-month Honduran political crisis appears to be over. Last week, Honduran officials signed an agreement to establish a provisional “unity” government and allow the Honduran Congress to determine the fate of Manuel Zelaya, who was removed as president in late June for constitutional violations. At first, some media outlets reported that the deal would automatically restore Zelaya as president, but that was inaccurate. Zelaya could be restored—but Honduran legislators will make the final call. The United States, which helped broker the accord, agreed to end sanctions against Honduras and recognize the legitimacy of its November 29 elections.
This represents a major triumph for Honduran democracy. The Obama administration had previously argued that the termination of U.S. sanctions and the acceptance of this month’s Honduran elections were both contingent on Zelaya’s reinstatement as president. At some point, the administration decided that Honduras should be permitted to make its own decision about the Hugo Chávez acolyte. If the Obama administration still believed that Zelaya’s removal was an illegal “military coup” and an assault on democracy, it would not have endorsed an agreement that lets the Honduran Congress reject Zelaya’s return to the presidency.
Zelaya, not surprisingly, is confused. He thought, understandably enough, that the U.S. government had taken his side. After the agreement was announced, he wrote a letter to the State Department demanding to know “if the position condemning the coup d’etat has been changed or modified.” In all likelihood, the Honduran Congress will not reinstall him as president. An adviser to Roberto Micheletti, who became interim Honduran president after Zelaya’s ouster, told Bloomberg News that “Zelaya won’t be restored—I don’t think so.” But the agreement has nonetheless boosted Honduras’s diplomatic standing. “Just by signing this agreement,” the Micheletti adviser told Bloomberg, “we already have the recognition of the international community for the elections.”
Implementation of the agreement will be monitored by a “verification commission,” whose members will include U.S. labor secretary Hilda Solis and former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos. Again, it is important to remember that nothing in the agreement stipulates Zelaya’s return as president. Honduran lawmakers will decide that issue themselves. They will base their decision partly on the opinion of the Honduran Supreme Court, which ordered the military to arrest Zelaya back in June. Even if Zelaya is restored, his term will end in January. A new president will be elected by the Honduran people on November 29 and inaugurated on January 27.
The Obama administration may have been persuaded to change its position on Honduras by a Law Library of Congress study that analyzed the legal circumstances of Zelaya’s ouster. The study concluded that “the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.” The study also found that Zelaya’s exile to Costa Rica was unconstitutional, but that has no bearing on his legal entitlement to return as president.
The administration deserves credit for its reversal on Honduras, though it should have changed course much sooner. There was no “coup” in Honduras; rather, the country’s democratic institutions exercised their legal authority to remove a president who had trampled the constitution and used thuggish mob tactics as part of a blatant power grab. U.S. sanctions against Honduras were never justified, nor did Honduras deserve to be suspended from the Organization of American States. Zelaya should not have been deported, but his removal from office was constitutional. Honduras never ceased being a civilian-led democracy. From the first minute it took office, the Micheletti government had constitutional legitimacy, despite being labeled as a “coup regime” by uninformed or ideologically biased critics.
Generally speaking, the U.S. media does not seem to appreciate the significance of what Honduras has achieved. To review: A Chávez crony launched an illegal attack on democracy, and his opponents used constitutional mechanisms to thwart his efforts. Honduran democracy survived. Authoritarian tactics were defeated. Free elections will soon be held. The country won’t be transformed into another Venezuela.
All of this is worth celebrating.