Mounting political tensions in Honduras finally spilled over on 28 June 2009, the day the nation was set to vote on the “cuarta urna“, a proposal from back in March that, if successfully passed, would have allowed for Hondurans to vote to change the constitution to allow incumbent President Manuel Zelaya to run for re-election in November.
Earlier in the week, Zelaya deposed ofRomeo Vasquez Velasquez, the head of the Armed Forces. In response, the heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force all resigned in solidarity, prompting even greater tension between the president and the military A nasty legal battle ensued, with each side accusing the other of acting illegally, and Zelaya declaring on 26 June 2009 that a coup was afoot. Two days later, he was forcibly removed from Honduras by the army, and will speak on 30 June at the UN in New York.
It is unfortunate that it took a military uprising to draw international attention to the deteriorating political situation that has been plaguing Honduras for years, making it one of the least safe nations in the Americas. The left-leaning Zelaya has never seen eye to eye with the traditional ruling elite in Honduras. As the two have competed in a polarizing power struggle, state institutions have suffered. Violent crime is on the rise, and international drug trafficking organizations regularly use Honduras’ porous borders, loosely controlled Bay Islands, and vast, sparsely populated eastern territory as a gateway for illegal narcotics destined for Mexico and beyond. Some in Honduras believe that the state lost control a long time ago, and that the week of 23 June was the result of a situation that had been close to boiling over for some time.
Back in March I wrote a commentary for International Relations and Security Network arguing that Honduras was left particularly vulnerable to the economic crisis due in large part to the lack of state control throughout much of the country. Weak state institutions have been a magnet for illegality, and the events of this past Sunday and the preceding week will only exacerbate this vulnerability in the coming weeks and months as both sides jockey for control of the presidency.
Yet, amidst the chaos, there is a silver lining that will not be immediately apparent until after the dust settles, which could take months.
The first is in the US response. The United States has a sad history of directly and indirectly supporting military coups in Latin America, ignoring democracy and human rights in favor of short-term political gain. Yet Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador to Honduras and President Obama both condemned the ousting, calling it a “coup” and demanding that democratic norms be respected. Not convinced, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and staunch ally of Zelaya claims that the CIA had a hand in the ousting.
Regardless of who is right, it is a bold step for the United States to support a left-leaning president in Latin America and condemn the “coup” – at the very least because it hinders empty political fodder that hinders the US from developing better relations with Latin America, and at the very most because it marks a true commitment to upholding democracy and democratic values worldwide. Granted, condemning the act is the general global consensus, and the US is hardly alone in their stance, which may be more out of political convenience than an ideological shift. But the outlying possibility is there.
The second potential positive outcome that may be the impact it has on other regional leaders thinking about constitutional referendums to increase executive powers. This has been a worrying trend in Latin America, and has been successfully pulled off on various occasions in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Yet as a result of the political unrest in Honduras, leaders may think twice before attempting such a drastic change to increase their own power.
Fueled by the successes of his allies, Zelaya no doubt felt he could turn up the heat without any reprecussions. He ended up getting burned. It is unfortunate that the Honduran people will have to suffer as a result.