Latin America Still Divided Over the Coup in Honduras

Posted on June 7, 2010

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Latin America Still Divided Over Coup in Honduras

Arturo Rodriguez/Associated Press

Porfirio Lobo has not convinced much of the world that he is the legitimate leader of Honduras.

By MARC LACEY
Published: June 5, 2010

 MEXICO CITY — No longer is the ousted Honduran president hiding out in an embassy compound, and no longer is the man who replaced him thumbing his nose at the world.

But a year after one of the most unusual coups in Central American history played out in Honduras, it continues to divide Latin America and pose an unrelenting challenge to the Obama administration’s goals in the region. And despite months of crisis negotiations and halting compromises, the Honduran political standoff will still haunt a meeting of the Organization of American States that opens on Sunday in Peru.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who favors restoring Honduras to the regional body, is likely to encounter vociferous criticism from her counterparts in Latin America who do not yet recognize the new Honduran government.

“There still are some countries that believe that Honduras should take additional steps, which is a position that’s different from that of the United States,” Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters on Friday.

A senior State Department official acknowledged that the Obama administration was concerned that the O.A.S. meeting could become bogged down by Honduras and other issues that pit the United States and a handful of allies against much of the rest of the region.

Indeed, those issues have multiplied in the past year: to the longstanding disputes over trade and the Cuba embargo have been added newer disagreements, including American military bases in Colombia and Brazil’s efforts to block the United States-led campaign for international sanctions against Iran.

Critics of the administration say the disputes suggest that President Obama has failed to live up to his promise to change the domineering dynamics of the United States’ relations with the region. Mr. Obama’s supporters disagree, saying that the administration has been able to keep close ties with the region despite deep disagreements.

Honduras still looms among the deepest, though.

Isolated from its neighbors and politically divided internally, Honduras has not yet moved beyond the tumult of last June, when President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed by soldiers at the behest of the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court and then illegally bundled out of the country in his nightclothes.

As the world branded Mr. Zelaya’s ouster a coup, the Honduran political establishment rallied around a new leader, Roberto Micheletti. His message to the United States and other countries that insisted that Mr. Zelaya be restored to power was a simple one: Mind your own business.

A year ago, the United States joined with the rest of the region in ousting Honduras from the 33-member O.A.S. But the United States-led strategy to restore Mr. Zelaya to office failed as Mr. Micheletti refused step down. Only after previously scheduled elections were held in November, and Porfirio Lobo won, did Mr. Micheletti hand over the government.

Mr. Lobo, despite the support of Washington, finds himself a presidential pariah struggling to put the past behind him.

He formed an international truth commission to look into the events of last year, but the body has been condemned both by supporters of Mr. Zelaya and by Mr. Micheletti. He has pushed for passage of amnesty legislation that applies to those on both sides of the political divide. But he still encounters obstacles at every turn.

He was invited to attend the European Union-Latin American summit meeting in Madrid in May, but backed out when several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela, threatened to boycott the meeting if he were there.

When Mr. Lobo visited the Dominican Republic in June, Néstor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina who leads the Union of South American Nations, decided to cancel his trip to the country so as not to acknowledge Mr. Lobo as the legitimate president of Honduras. The Dominican Republic has provided Mr. Zelaya a haven while he determines his next move.

The Obama administration, praising Mr. Lobo for his attempts at national reconciliation, contends that it is time to reintegrate Honduras into the O.A.S. Besides naming the truth commission, the United States notes, Mr. Lobo has appointed a human rights adviser and included political opponents in his government.

Joining the United States in recognizing Mr. Lobo’s government are Canada, the European Union, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and most of the countries of Central America. But considerable opposition remains, especially from Brazil, which gave Mr. Zelaya refuge in its embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Mexico, another powerhouse in the region and an American ally, has also yet to offer its full support to Mr. Lobo’s government, much to the frustration of Washington.

That lingering opposition means Honduras does not appear to have the votes to win reinstatement. The secretary general of the O.A.S., José Miguel Insulza, told reporters on Thursday that allowing Mr. Zelaya to return to Honduras, where he now faces corruption charges, would be the best way to defuse the crisis and allow Honduras to be readmitted to the O.A.S.

“The way to go about this, and this is the position of many countries in South America, is if Zelaya is allowed to return to Honduras in a calm manner,” Mr. Insulza said.

Even if Honduras does win recognition overseas, its internal tumult remains fierce. Human rights groups complain of arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings of government opponents over the past year. And seven journalists have been killed in the country in recent months, although it has not yet been determined how many of those attacks have political links.

The firing of four judges was connected to the country’s political divide. The Supreme Court in May dismissed four lower-court judges who had challenged the legality of Mr. Zelaya’s ouster.

As for the truth commission, it has its work cut out for it. On the eve of its creation in May, human rights groups formed an alternative truth body because they doubted the official one would get to the bottom of what had occurred.

Eduardo Stein, the truth commission’s president and a former vice president of Guatemala, is trying to reconstruct what happened a year ago in hopes of uniting Honduras. To do so, he is studiously avoiding one politically charged word to describe Mr. Zelaya’s ouster — coup.

“In our minds and in the evidence we’ve gathered, it is clear that it was a forced expulsion of a president who had been elected by popular vote,” he said by telephone from Tegucigalpa. “What do you call that?”

Ginger Thompson contributed reporting from Washington.