Deposed President Mel Zelaya’s return
doesn’t mean the return of democracy to Honduras,
as some, swayed by the rhetoric, think or hurried to say.
The Cartagena Agreements that allowed him to come back
contain some good points and send positive signals,
but they also contain shadows and risks
as they leave intact the human rights violations
that provoked the coup and make no reference
to the deeper problems always left unresolved.
Waving in one hand the national flag, his party’s Liberal flag and the flag of the Honduran resistance movement of which he is the general coordinator, Manuel Zelaya Rosales returned to Honduras four and a half hours behind schedule on the afternoon of Saturday, May 28. After planning to arrive at 11 am in a private jet, he decided to delay his departure from Managua.
Zelaya’s return was colorful and festive. A boisterous crowd of followers welcomed him and cheered him as their leader and the savior of the nation. In a vague speech, Zelaya declared that he was coming to reconcile Honduran society and would do this by seeking power.
The crowd stayed on their feet for hours with eyes fixed on the sky, jumping up and down every time they saw an airplane, waiting for the flight that would bring “the leader of leaders.” Once again Zelaya Rosales broke with the organized plan in order to leave his usual improvisational mark on the ceremony. Dozens of people fainted due to the intense heat and prolonged wait. A great number of people had arrived in the capital in the early hours of the previous night.
Once arrived, Zelaya showed little interest in the program planned by the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) and began to improvise a speech which he interrupted whenever it occurred to him to pass the microphone to anyone he wanted to.
It’s him or XiomaraHis reconciliation proposal was based on the Cartagena Agreements. Zelaya asked the crowd to remember its contents as he passed the microphone to his wife Xiomara Castro and his daughter Hortensia, known as “ la Pichu,” so they could read point by point the document that allowed him to return to Honduras. He raised the three flags in a symbolic gesture indicating how he understands the resistance movement: a broad political electoral front that includes those in resistance within his Liberal Party and those in resistance from the unions and social and political organizations of the Left. This broad-spectrum alliance that will participate in the electoral process also includes the leader’s family. Zelaya knows that the massive support for his leadership puts him in a powerful position to negotiate important quotas of power and eventually move the political process toward a National Constituent Assembly that opens the way to his reelection as President.
In case he’s not successful in his election bid due to the tight deadlines of the upcoming electoral process, he can play the card of his wife Xiomara, whose name (whether in reality or as a trial balloon) has been circulating for several months in the media and in movement circles. In a poll circulated days prior to Zelaya’s return, she showed an 80% approval rating by those questioned about their opinions if she were to run as a presidential candidate in 2013.
Unbeknownst to the The Cartagena Agreements, formally called “The Agreements for National Reconciliation and Consolidation of the Democratic System in the Republic of Honduras,” opened the doors for a new political situation based on the overthrown President’s return, Honduras’ reentry into the OAS, complete acknowledgment of both Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s government and the FNRP, but without touching the conflicts that were accumulating long before the coup and increased during it. The agreements are intended to revitalize the national scene while reducing the polarization and political confrontations, but they leave intact the economic and social polarization that is at the root of the crisis. The wounds created by the social problems are still festering.
The agreements were drawn up and discussed outside of Honduras without the presence or even knowledge of virtually any of the resistance movement leaders. They were forged by Lobo Sosa’s advisory team, former President Zelaya and the Colombian and Venezuelan Presidents. The resistance movement leaders were not present in any of the designing and negotiating. And, when on April 16 it was learned that the negotiations existed, a month and a half had passed since the FNRP assembly met and by majority agreed to not negotiate, recognize the Lobo government or participate in the electoral process.
They were caught by surpriseIn the resistance movement, Rafael Alegría embodies the model of almost virtual global leadership. Many years ago, he jumped from the narrow national rural scene to that of the international forums in which a global organization such as Via Campesina participates. In the morning of a given day, Alegría could be in a cafe in Madrid discussing food security and that night participate in a forum in San Jose, Costa Rica, on the protection of natural resources. Another day he sits with rural organizations in Chiapas and has to hurry through his agenda because at night he’s meeting in Caracas with advisers close to President Chávez or with Chávez himself to discuss the Honduran resistance movement. In 2008, when Chávez visited the Honduran capital, all the cameras captured him in an embrace with this rural leader, who is more easily found now in an international forum than in a small local activity since his country’s rural life became too confining for his globe-trotting advocacy work.
Nonetheless, Rafael Alegría couldn’t conceal the shock on his face when the meeting in Cartagena between Presidents Santos, Chávez and Lobo was made public on April 16, and when he heard Zelaya informing the country by telephone what was being negotiated to surmount the Honduran crisis. Similar responses of surprise, some in agreement and others not, were in the minds of other high FNRP leaders. The whole process had been hatched in conspiratorial secrecy between representatives of the Lobo government and the overthrown President under the complacent watch and the decision of officials close to the two South American Presidents. Furthermore, the process continued after the public announcement without input from the FNRP leaders..
The four demandsOnce the negotiation process between Lobo and Zelaya was announced, Zelaya called FNRP members together . From that point on those closest to Zelaya became spokespersons for the four demands made in the negotiation process: the return of Mel Zelaya and those in exile, respect for human rights, the call for a National Constitutional Assembly and recognition of the FNRP as a political force.
The agreements were finally signed in Cartagena on Sunday, May 22. The four demands defended by the resistance movement leaders were concretized. The first demand, concerning Zelaya’s return with all constitutional guarantees, meant that the courts not only had to suspend the outstanding arrest orders for the former President, but also annul the already initiated trials against him. They also had to suspend the arrest orders for some of his closest collaborators. The second demand, concerning human rights, was written in vague, imprecise and incoherent terms as though on erasable paper. Thus the demand for legal rights and reparations to the victims of human rights violations was the one that lost out.
Third, the agreements transfer the demand for a National Constituent Assembly to the recently resurrected terms of plebiscite and referendum, which are in Article 5 of the Honduran Constitution. This has unquestionably been the most emblematic issue for both Zelaya and the whole resistance movement. Fourth, the agreements ensure that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal will guarantee that the appropriate steps are taken for the FNRP to become a legal political force that can participate in the electoral process on the same footing as the other political parties.
A Latin American successThe Cartagena Agreements send several positive signals, while leaving the usual worries intact. The first positive signal is that in the almost two years since the coup these agreements are the first proposal, albeit tepid, that points to a political solution to the events that unleashed the constitutional break of June 28, 2009.
A second positive signal is that the Latin American leadership has felt itself in a political bind over this whole post-coup period, making all the countries of the continent tense because they had to either legitimize or repudiate the first successful coup of the 21st century. The fact that two Presidents representing such diverse political visions came together as promoters and witnesses to the agreements with active participation by the Central American Presidents draws a Latin American political map prudently distant from the traditional definitions and last words coming from Washington.
The agreements are a success for Latin American diplomacy. That success opens the door to a correlation of forces that suggest the possibility of a Latin American organization parallel to but not breaking with the OAS that can move forward in defining a Latin America with a new personality that doesn’t have to borrow criteria from anyone in the North to make its own decisions.
A Warning and a call to dialogueA third positive signal of the accords is aimed at Honduras. With all their timid contents, the agreements warn politicians, the military and businesspeople that they can’t attempt to undermine democracy and the rule of law without being condemned and rejected by a Latin American community that’s more conscious and more demanding of its rulers. The agreements warn them not only of their error but also of the need to apologize to the entire society for the harm they caused.
A last, but not least, positive signal, from the agreements translates into an inalienable political task. If two Latin American Presidents who represent two different political visions put forth and become witnesses to political agreements that open a new period in Honduras, it means that the conflicts and social polarization in our society can and should be resolved with dialogue and negotiation among those representing differing positions, interests and political and ideological visions. This requires an open attitude and a willingness to listen to those who are different, including making concessions in the name of national and patriotic interest, however much each person and sector defends their own interests.
What’s the Achilles heel?With Mel Zelaya’s return, the return of Honduras to the OAS and full recognition of Lobos’ government as well as of the FNRP as a legitimate potential political party, all roads opened by the agreements lead to resolving the main issues through elections. This is not only the major incoherence of the Agreements but also its Achilles heel.
All the positive signals can be shredded if they collide with political agreements by upper party echelons that refer everything to the electoral arena because there all strings are pulled by the decision-making centers of a bipartite system. But not everything is an electoral issue. How will the issues of social conflicts, crime and human rights violations be solved?
Seen from the perspective of daily Honduran life, the Cartagena Agreements once again put forth the traditional bipartite model to capitalize on all the political demands in its own favor and turn the crisis and the social and institutional conflicts into opportunities to revitalize the old machinery of the National and Liberal parties. This system is now pulling the FNRP into its own terrain to be converted into a controlled and co-opted official opposition adjusted to the scope and limits of made-to-order legislation by the owners of the current political party system. The agreements convert the insignia demand of Zelaya Rosales and the FNRP—the call for a National Constitutional Assembly—into a reality that will be decided by the political and legal criteria guiding the bipartite system.
Pepe Lobo was once heard to say that “the Constitution goes no matter what.” a concept clearly evident in these agreements, which turn Lobo and his closest collaborators into its architects. You don’t have to have a suspicious nature to believe that the bipartite model will be the winner in this process. It seems inevitable that from now on until November 2013 all national conflicts will be conditioned by the electoral campaign because the agreements have pushed all of society into that arena.
The perverse thing The way the agreements treat human rights violations perverts all its political content. It is unacceptable that at this stage politics crushes the victims of the violence exercised by the State in this stage. When the document textually says, “Admitting that during the political crisis there have been persons who consider themselves affected by the vulnerability of human rights, the government of Honduras, through the Secretary of Justice and Human Rights agrees to listen to their charges,” it is transferring the murders, rapes of women, closing of media and disproportionate use of force in anti-coup demonstrations to the sphere of individual initiative and subjective interpretation.
about the agreements
Framing human rights violations this way means that the agrarian and teacher conflicts, all the corruption cases and crimes will go unpunished. Thus the agreements can become a dense smoke screen to cover up deals among the upper echelons unbeknownst to the victims. Instead of being the first step in a negotiated political way out of the conflict, it will only promote more impunity.
Only a truce?The country’s real conflicts can’t be resolved with agreements like those Lobo and Zelaya signed. What’s happening now can become a truce while the destabilizing dynamics continue. After a brief period of retreat or lying in wait, the conflicts could emerge with greater capacity to destroy the country’s social, political and institutional fabric.
A new social pact with the full participation of all sectors of society continues to be the fundamental political task. These agreements are no substitute. They could, however, bring about a better setting: a call, with international mediation, to discuss the minimum consensual issues of this new social pact that could lead to a constitutional assembly that would draw up a new political Constitution.
At the right timeThe Cartagena Agreements offer positive signs and could become a turning point that neither the San Jose-Tegucigalpa agreements, which left the coup situation intact, nor Zelaya’s clandestine bursting into the Brazilian Embassy, nor the elections Lobo won, and certainly not the present Lobo government have been able to offer. None of those events broke down the barrier built by those who promoted and maintained the coup. All that has happened between June 28, 2009, and May 2011 has been variations on a situation dominated by the coup. Now the agreements have broken through into the country’s political life, just when it seemed that all had been lost for the resistance movement, when everything indicated that the state decisions were continuing and would continue to be in the hands of those who organized the coup and exclude those who opposed it.
Who can defend us?The agreements came to the resistance movement as a needed bite of food to a dying man to keep him from expiring. How can this be explained? It is said that in politics nothing is written and being in the right place at the right time can change reality. This is what seems to be happening with the agreements.
Just in the first two weeks of May, when they were putting the final touches on what would be the official text of the agreements, the Honduras business community held one of its most important events in recent times. Hundreds of the most successful capitalist businesspeople were in San Pedro Sula for an event whose title was in English: “Honduras is open for business.”
A few weeks before, the country’s most powerful union movement—the teachers unions—had backed off its decision to indefinitely continue its labor stoppage. The teachers were demanding repeal of a decree they say would curtail union rights and diminish the unions’ power by shifting decision-making to municipalities and community organizations while establishing conditions for privatizing public education. The union’s hadn’t anticipated the harshness with which President Lobo sent the police with strict orders to remove the demonstrators who had taken to the streets, highways and bridges.
Lobo made the teachers’ leadership, whose union strength had been severely weakened, sit at a conference table while he imposed his conditions and ordered them to fire more than 300 teachers for leaving their work. The government only sat down with the union leaders once Lobo had dealt them a decisive strategic blow, without doubt the worst hit this powerful union had taken since the early eighties. And because it’s the backbone of the resistance movement, it was the Lobo regime’s way to deal the FNRP a strategic blow.
In this atmosphere, the “Honduras is open for business” event could go full steam ahead. It seemed that the FRNP would be reduced to a controlled opposition, not because its leaders had been co-opted or their ideology controlled, but because the union had been boxed in, making it look like the expression of a small faction of the rebellious Left, unable to upset the political scene.
In this context, as if answering the comedic sitcom character Chavo del Ocho’s desperate question, “Now who’s going to defend us?,” Manuel Zelaya returned with the Cartegena Agreements under the brim of his hat. He arrived clothed in red/black/white like the coming of the Messiah with one foot over the dying Liberalism and the other over the also dying FNRP. Once again Zelaya Rosales appears as the definer of the political dynamics, just as he has for at least the past six years. Many people both at the grassroots level and in the middle and upper leadership see Mel Zelaya as someone who has come to save Honduras. In this important figure of traditional politics one finds an extreme example of the caudillo or strongman mentality that is part of the country’s cultural heritage.
“We saw him!”In the grandiose scene at the Toncontin airport to welcome him, Zelaya Rosales did not mention what could have been his programmatic proposal to those who greeted him so enthusiastically. But for the huge majority of those people, what Zelaya said or didn’t say wasn’t important. What people were looking for was captured in one woman’s statement, “I came to see him. Now I’ve seen him and I can leave happy.” Although several thousands left before his arrival, the majority of people waited so many hours not so much to hear him but rather to see him appear. Once they saw him, the exodus started and it didn’t matter what their leader was saying.
If, indeed, they had been waiting to hear what Mel would say, they would undoubtedly have been disenchanted with the incoherent, vague improvised speech. But the words didn’t matter. They just wanted to see him and, if possible, touch him. That’s where the magic is. And it’s that magic that gives this leader carte blanche to say or write anything he wants in the name of the people.
The great risk of The euphoria that Mel Zelaya’s return has awakened is so far oustide the context of the increasingly unstable social and political reality that it makes the Zelaya phenomenon a mobilizing factor of distraction. It means that a sector of society—including a certain sector in the Left, fervently aroused by its idol—is taking no responsibility for its reality. Blind allegiance to a leader is replacing the personal and organizational commitments needed to transform society.
this idolized Zelaya
In this context of distracting euphoria, the leaders who achieve greatest prominence are those who are most faithful to the main leader, who take the defensive and reject all that’s not the “official history” built from everyone thinking alike. These are expressions of an inherited traditional political culture that one sees on the Right and on the so-called Left. It’s a sign of the lack of identity among common people, those pushed by this culture to pin their hopes and their entire lives on expectations that are beyond their own realities and organizational abilities.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.