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.

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