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Is Honduras Heading Toward a Civil War?

5 years ago
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Well, Carl, I'm afraid Act 5 is here.

When you and I wrote about the whole Honduras debacle back when it began in June, we both teased out the humorous aspects of this tragi-comedy: the midnight exile of the Latin American president in his pajamas . . . his little-engine-that-could vow to return from Costa Rica . . . Hugo Chavez stepping in as the heavy. Add to the mix all the racism, matrimonial dysfunction, big oil and imperialism circulating behind the scenes. As you said then, there was something for everyone.

But in the past few days, the situation in Honduras has gone from the absurd to the flat-out tragic. On Monday, exiled President Manuel Zelaya returned to his home country and took up residency in the Brazilian Embassy. By Tuesday, Honduran security forces had barricaded the embassy and cut off all of its power. By Wednesday there were widespread anti-"coup" demonstrations outside the embassy, with allegations of torture and even killings by the Honduran Armed Forces.

Although the curfew was lifted on Thursday, the conflict has already taken a huge toll. Economically, there are reports of looting and food shortages. Business elites estimated that the curfew cost the country $50 million a day. And then there are the alleged human rights abuses.

I think that two things are making this conflict particularly difficult for the American public to interpret.

The first is the lack of an obvious "bad guy" in this scenario. On the one hand, the events of the last three days safely put to rest any pretense that what happened in June was anything other than a coup d'etat (as some anti-Zelaya forces suggested back then). Yes, Zelaya was trying to engineer a constitutional reform to lengthen his term in office. But as I pointed out in my earlier piece, he's in good company. Plenty of Latin American presidents have sought to alter their constitutions to lengthen term limits. Does that really warrant a coup?

On the other hand, Zelaya is no Thomas Jefferson either. While it's unfair to punish him for palling around with the likes of Hugo Chavez (speaking of term limits . . . ahem), Zelaya was clearly trying to act unilaterally -- against the will of his country's electoral tribunal, attorney general and supreme court -- to keep himself in power. While we Americans don't like coups, we also don't like dictators. (And, frankly? The guy's a bit weird).

The other aspect of this crisis that's made it difficult to puzzle through has been the seemingly ambivalent response by the U.S. government. I remember a tweet crossing my desk earlier this summer that read, simply: "Who's in charge of Honduras policy at the USG?"

On the one hand, the president and the secretary of state did denounce Zelaya's ouster back in June. And they have repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to restore constitutional order. But they were also slow to sever diplomatic ties with the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti. And while the U.S. government did -- belatedly -- terminate millions of dollars in foreign aid to Honduras, as late as August it was still honoring pre-existing aid disbursements to the tune of $100 million.

Right now, the majority of the international community is pushing for some kind of negotiated settlement, similar to the one put forth by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias earlier this summer. That plan was rejected by the Micheletti government. Micheletti now says that he is willing to negotiate with Zelaya, but he won't cancel arrest warrants or charges against him.

Which leaves us with Brazil -- and the Organization of American States -- to bring this thing to a halt. With all due respect to the OAS, it's never been an organization with a lot of teeth. Research shows that international organizations like the OAS are most effective in bringing about democratic change when there's a strong, mobilized opposition. But it's a bit unclear in this case who, exactly, the opposition is.

And it gets worse. I got an e-mail from an old Honduran friend yesterday describing the dire state of affairs in Tegucigalpa right now. Although she, too, would like to see a peaceful resolution to this crisis, she claims that if Zelaya is returned to power, there will be a civil war.

Maybe that will get someone's attention. Let's hope so.


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