Saturday, November 28, 2009

Honduras again, in Foreign Policy

Here are a few graphs from a good op-ed (if I do say so myself) published this week at
Although coup leaders and others question Zelaya's method and motives, this crisis has revealed that many Hondurans still want a significant reform of their country's Constitution. It was the United States' own handpicked negotiator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who called the Honduran Constitution "the worst in the world." With neither any clause for impeachment nor any recourse for amendment, Arias had the document dead to rights. And it is easy to imagine the events of June repeating themselves if serious debate over constitutional reform does not continue once the facade of democracy is restored. Indeed, it is just this sort of national conversation that the majority of Hondurans still seem to desire. Just one month ago, 54 percent of Honduran respondents told a U.S. polling firm that a constitutional assembly would now be the best way for resolving the current crisis.

In the end, the Honduran people themselves will need to decide what, if any, changes they want to make to their Constitution, and whether any such changes can be made through a piecemeal reform process or whether a constitutional assembly to rewrite the document altogether will ultimately be necessary. For now, however, the United States should publicly support such a conversation, beyond Sunday's vote. And most importantly, it should do its part to ensure an open political environment exists for doing so.

In other words, don't bless these elections and walk away. Instead, Washington should maintain its suspension of government-to-government assistance and not recognize the newly elected regime until there is a full restoration of civil liberties and steps are taken to prosecute human rights abuses. Next, the Obama team should work with the Organization of American States and other democracies -- the vast majority of which is reluctant to endorse these elections -- to find a way to bring Honduras back into the international community. For starters, if the new government is to recover any semblance of legitimacy, it will need to ensure that adequate conditions exist for a broad and pluralistic debate and dialogue, including with respect to any constitutional issues. Moreover, such a dialogue should be seen as responding to the legitimate rights and concerns of Honduran citizens, rather than being branded as treason, as is customary for the coup government today.

Supporting this next process may be the only way for the United States to retain a trace of goodwill among many rightfully frustrated Hondurans -- not to mention the rest of Latin America, disappointed that five months of hemispheric unity might end because of a hasty and ill-considered decision to recognize Sunday's elections.

George Vickers is the director of international operations at the Open Society Institute.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What do they take us for, stupid?

It's quite the indicator of just how mediocre the State Department has been that they think they can bluff their way through the various mixed signals they're responsible for. From Tyler Bridge's story posted yesterday in the Miami Herald:
The U.S. State Department helped broker a deal that called for the Honduran Congress to vote on whether to allow Zelaya to finish his term. But once Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon made televised comments last week that seemed to remove pressure from Washington, Honduras' Congress has made no plans to vote on whether to enact the agreement.

Shannon said last week that the deal meant that the Obama administration would accept the outcome of the Nov. 29 presidential and congressional elections, regardless of whether Zelaya was back in power.

... Shannon made his comments last week to CNN en Español. State Department spokesman Charles Luoma Overstreet in an e-mail to McClatchy questioned the widespread interpretation of what Shannon said and sent a transcript of the interview that left out the relevant quotes. The actual transcript shows Shannon twice confirming that the U.S. would respect the outcome of the elections no matter whether Zelaya were restored.

A senior State Department official declined to discuss Shannon's statements Monday, saying instead, ``What we're trying to do is get the parties to follow the accord. . . . If the accord is not implemented fully, that will affect international perceptions.''
Needless to say, this may be the first election anywhere, anytime, in which the legitimacy of a highly dubious electoral scenario is validated ex ante by the U.S. government.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why the Guaymuras Accord is a lost cause, and other Saturday morning musings

Even if the parties were to go back to the negotiating table, it is quite clear that the Honduran Congress will not agree to reverse their June 28 acceptance of Zelaya's resignation letter (that's right - that would be the letter with the fake Zelaya signature) anytime soon. As I argued yesterday, that's a clear precondition for moving forward with the unity government.

Lucia Newman, Aljazeera International's Latin America editor (and a respected former CNN correspondent and past winner of Maria Cabot Moors prize) noted Thursday:
"There is a lot that has not been worked out; the most important point is whether or not [Zelaya] the deposed president will be returned to power [before elections scheduled for November 29]. I can tell you that the way the numbers look, it does not look good for Zelaya."
And Tim Padgett has a quote from Pepe Lobo in the piece he filed yesterday for Time that demonstrates how hard it will be to push this back:
"Micheletti and Zelaya made a pact, and as long as that pact is carried out the world has to recognize the elections as valid," he says. "So at this point, what does it matter which of them is in office when the election is held?" Lobo also knows that as long as the vote is sanctioned by the U.S., from whom Honduras gets the lion's share of its trade and aid, he needn't lose too much sleep over the fact that the rest of the world will probably still refuse to recognize his election if Zelaya is not restored.
Other random readings this morning include the New York Times editorial , which has so many errors of fact and misinterpretation it's almost not worth reading. Rosemary Joyce laughs and cries at the State Department spokesperson's attempt to explain the inexplicable and defend the indefensible. For my money, the best editorials are always to be found in the Los Angeles Times, as in this Thursday editorial.

In addition to OAS Secretary General Insulza's strong comments yesterday about the need to restore Zelaya, only Bloomberg (also consistently reliable source of information) appears to report on the call by the foreign ministers of the Rio Group (a group of 23 Latin American and some Caribbean countries that notably does not include the U.S. or Canada, but does include key US allies such as Colombia, Mexico and Peru) that Zelaya's restitution is "imperative" and an "indispensable requirement."

Will Stibbens, Al Jazeera International's Washington Bureau Chief (and former Latin America regional editor of the the Associated Press Television Network) has a worthwhile editorial proclaiming the Honduran "oligarchy" to be the clear winners of this process so far. As for Zelaya:

After a bold and deft campaign to regain power, and with the prize within his grasp, he committed a critical, strategic blunder.

Zelaya believed that it would be enough to sacrifice his social project, and the mass movement that backed it, to convince his political enemies to restore him to the presidency.

His representatives signed an agreement that categorically forbids the convening of a national constituent assembly, or any other form of popular referendum on the constitution, but without a written guarantee of a return to power for Zelaya.

That was left up to the congress, who appear poised, in the face of US indifference, to deny him even this hollow victory.

As for other winners and losers, Stibbens continues:

What could have been a diplomatic victory for Washington, is now looking like another example of its clumsiness, which will end up exacerbating ideological divisions. If the agreement does collapse there will be repercussions, and collateral damage, throughout the region.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who from the start condemned the negotiating track led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias as a trap, will be vindicated.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Rethinking the Honduran Deal

Where to start in commenting on Honduras? The Economist piece cited in Josh's news summary today was on the money in its skepticism of the deal. Many of the rest of us, naively thinking that the Administration knew what it was doing when it declared victory with the Accord, were wrong. There was so much "constructive ambiguity" to how this deal would play out that there were far too many loopholes. I thought that the Administration (and Shannon) would not have touted an accord if they didn't think Zelaya would not be restored to power, if they didn't think that there were the votes in Congress to do this.

That's clearly the argument that Shannon used to persuade Zelaya to sign this. Indeed, on Friday, October 30th, the day after the accord, Shannon responded to the question about whether we might reach Nov. 29th elections with Micheletti still in power:

There is not a timeline for the congress to take a decision and the negotiators were very clear on this. In fact, last night, Mr. Zelaya’s chief negotiator came out and said that the commission could not impose a timeline on the congress because it was an independent institution. But there is a political dynamic here and a political imperative for the congress to move quickly on this decision. It’s just not something that can be ignored in the short term.
Granted, we all knew that there was no timeline, but statements like this plus reports from those close to Zelaya, indicated that there was reason to think that something would happen in Congress very quickly. That the National Party would see it in its interests to vote to return Zelaya to a basically powerless, caretaker post for a couple of months.

My own reaction to the accord was too much influenced by the often-times synchronized nature of accords -- if one side does one thing, the other side responds. Like Zelaya, I looked at the accord and saw Nov. 5 as D-Day -- because why would Zelaya supporters deem to integrate a government of national unity and reconciliation if Zelaya were not restored to power? (Zelaya took logic that a step further -- the swearing in of a new and legitimate cabinet requires a legitimate president, i.e., Zelaya, to do the job.)

Clearly we were not alone in this interpretation. In recent days, Lagos was clear that the return of Zelaya had to be part of the solution. On Tuesday, OAS Secretary General Insulza said: "La única salida de paz es restablecer al Presidente (Manuel) Zelaya por el escaso tiempo que le queda en la presidencia.... "Yo espero que [el congreso] lo hagan pronto. No creo que lo vayan a hacer hoy día, pero lo ideal sería que lo hicieran ya."

The accord just doesn't make sense from Zelaya's perspective unless he expected to be restored by Nov. 5th. It makes sense that Zelaya would not want to legitimate a "unity government" by sending hisrepresentatives to participate before he was restored to power.

And now that they are not there, the only way he would (and should) accept being restored to power is to redesign the entire cabinet. And what are the chances of that happening? I realize this would be largely symbolic, as his own presidency would have been at this point, but such symbolism is incredibly important -- the symbolism of allowing a country to throw out a president, and getting away with it by simply holding elections and moving on.

We started getting inklings of a far different interpretation of what we could expect to happen when Tom Shannon was quoted on CNN en Espanol a couple of days ago. (By the way, was that really the appropriate venue to finally be crystal clear about the US position?). In that 6-minute interview, Shannon clarified that Zelaya's return to power had nothing to do with the "unity government" or the elections -- that elections could happen without Zelaya's return, and the US would be okay with that.
"Officially, whatever happens in this process, the United States will recognize what happens on the 29th?" the CNN reporter asked Shannon (my translation). "Si - exactamente," replied Shannon.
At the same time, we now know that there were, in fact, incentives for the State Department's position. Indeed, The Hill reported last night that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) released the hold on Shannon and Valenzuela's nominations, noting:
Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary [of Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom] Shannon have assured me that the U.S. will recognize the outcome of the Honduran elections regardless of whether Manuel Zelaya is reinstated. I take our administration at their word that they will now side with the Honduran people and end their focus on the disgraced Zelaya.
Today we have word that, no sooner had DeMint's hold been lifted on Shannon, than was another one placed by Senator George Lemieux (newly appointed Florida Republican to replace Mel Martinez). According an email circulating from DC advocacy groups, he has done so "at the behest of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which is still furious over Secretary Shannon's impeccable handling of the Cuba OAS resolution earlier this year."

What's clear now is that this wasn't the great deal it was hyped up to be -- rather, it was a high-stakes poker game, and Zelaya got snookered. The US didn't "broker" or mediate this deal. All it did was weigh in one specific point about what the process would be to potentially return Zelaya to power -- i.e., send it to Congress, not the Supreme Court. Most all the other points were hardly different than what had been agreed upon weeks, if not months, ago.

Now that the Guaymuras Accord has failed, it's the US government with egg on its face. The State Department's defines sucess as the mere fact that it had persuaded everyone to come to an agreement about the rules of this poker game. Who wins or loses would be beside the point -- and so it's time to declare victory and move on. In its hasty zeal to reach an agreement, and end a diplomatic headache, the State Department has given us "diplomacy on the cheap" (as one former US diplomat referred to it a few weeks ago) and a fundamentally worse situation.

Why? The Economist (and one has to credit Michael Reid here) called it right when it predicted what would happen if Congress delayed:

...the united front against the coup in the outside world may buckle. The United States, which has already reopened its visa office in Tegucigalpa, the capital, appears willing to recognise the elections whether or not Congress votes to restore Mr Zelaya. But most of Latin America is unlikely to follow suit unless Mr Zelaya is reinstated before the ballot—especially since the head of the electoral tribunal says that anyone calling for a boycott will be jailed.
In addition to the ALBA countries, I think you can add Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile to the list of countries who do not recognize these elections, for starters. So hemispheric unity was shortlived, and the OAS will be more divided than before. Something else will have to budge to change this situation, as I rather doubt the US will be able to muster the two-thirds' vote needed to remove Honduras' suspension from the OAS. This is successful US diplomacy?

And the consequences of this for Honduras? Again, the Economist:
The army, having submitted to civilian authority for the past decade or more, has re-emerged as a political actor. An old-established two-party system is giving way to a far more polarising class divide. And the rule of law has been circumvented by both sides. “This is the repetition of 100 years of Honduran history,” says Mr Díaz Arrivillaga. “It’s the same ghosts: stopping communism, selective violations of human rights, constitutional breaches, and agreements among elites and caudillos sponsored by the United States. It’s nothing new.” In one of the poorest countries in the region, that lack of novelty is all the more depressing.
I fear we're in for months, if not years, of continued social and political conflict and unrest.