May 18, 2011
Central American PerilBy Chris Lewin
The political situation of Honduras, our long-time Central American ally with a history of aversion to Communism and Socialism, appears to be lurching toward danger.
On Monday, May 2, a Court of Appeals in Honduras reviewing the criminal charges against ousted former President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya voted to annul the criminal charges against him, possibly paving the way for his return to the country. An appeal was rejected on May 5. But the opportunity for further appeal remains for sixty days.
The return of Zelaya, without fear of prosecution, is a condition which is being insisted upon by the leftist-dominated Organization of American States, as requirement for allowing Honduras to be readmitted to the organization. After the annulment of the charges, both the OAS and the U.S. State Department issued statements approving the developments.
Zelaya turned to Marxism after being elected president, and he drew support from Venezuelan Marxist dictator Hugo Chávez in an attempt to overthrow the Honduran Constitution. He was kicked out of Honduras in 2009 after tripping special clauses in the Honduran Constitution designed to prevent such a takeover.
Zelaya had already been granted amnesty for political crimes as part of a general amnesty in 2010. So with the annulment of criminal charges, Mel is apparently free to return to Honduras without consequence. While neither the OAS nor the U.S. is publicly calling for him to be returned to the presidency at this moment, this is still an alarming prospect. The cause for alarm becomes clear when one considers the fact that Zelaya's backer, Hugo Chávez, is a man who was once granted immunity for attempting a takeover in Venezuela in 1992. He is now the dictator of that country.
Since 2009, the previously taboo subjects of presidential reelection and of calling a "Constituyente" (an overthrow of the present constitution) have been increasingly introduced into open discussion in Honduras. But the call for presidential reelection and the call for a Constituyente are supposed to be expressly forbidden by the Tegucigalpa/San Jose Accords, which were signed in an attempt to diffuse the 2009 crisis.
The annulment of charges is just one in a string of recent developments in which the influence of Venezuelan dictator Chávez has grown in Honduras along with the leverage of Zelaya and his followers, the Marxist "Resistencia."
On April 9, Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo made a surprise visit to Cartegena, Colombia and met with Hugo Chávez in a meeting mediated by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. What occurred there in Cartegena? Lobo went to ask for Chávez's permission to reenter the OAS. And, provided that Lobo and Honduras would guarantee Zelaya's secure return to Honduras free from prosecution, Chávez gave his OK. OAS General Secretary José Miguel Insulza shortly thereafter in a press release expressed his satisfaction regarding the meeting, and he seemed to acknowledge the meeting as a starting point to Honduras' restoration in the OAS. One might deduce from the sequence of events that it was the opinion and requirements of Hugo Chávez that the OAS primarily valued.
Since then, the Honduran courts have carried out Chávez's dictates ostensibly at the behest of President Lobo, who said he would guarantee Zelaya's right of return. This would certainly raise the suspicion of those concerned about the independence of the judiciary in Honduras, with both Honduran executive branch and international pressures being exerted to expect a certain outcome from the judicial branch of the government. Especially when it is considered that Lobo has at times been very open in his attempts to influence the courts' decisions, particularly over the question of Zelaya.
Also of concern is a "Law of the Judicature" constitutional reform, which was part of a package of reforms passed over the winter. At least two of these reforms (the other being a reform of the plebiscite or referendum laws) seem to bear a striking resemblance to many of the reforms of the 21st Century Socialist States of Venezuela and its allies, Bolivia and Ecuador. The presidents of these nations have used these reforms to augment power over other branches of the government and to skirt constitutional prohibitions.
The reform of the judicial branch has drawn considerable criticism within the nation.
In addition to current pressures, the extreme hostility of the Obama administration and Secretary of State Clinton during the 2009 crisis should not be forgotten. The U.S. administration specifically targeted the individual members of the Honduran Supreme Court with visa cancellations merely because the court insisted on following the Honduran constitution and law. It was a message sent hard and early from a nation that was supposed to be a friend and Honduras' best ally. The U.S. has tremendous power over Honduras in the form of international trade, financial aid, and military cooperation and protection. That early message has probably not been forgotten by the Honduran justices.
To be fair, the U.S. administration did advocate for the restoration of Honduras at an OAS meeting back in June 2010. And an article by Grant Laten, of the Center of international and Strategic Studies at that time, stated that Secretary of State Clinton agreed to a plan that would have allowed Zelaya to return to Honduras to face the charges against him.
Yet all this raises legitimate questions. Is the U.S. simply using the OAS to achieve the Obama administration's original goal? In the summer of 2010, the U.S. was publicly amenable to allowing Zelaya to face charges. But just a few months earlier, according to this article by Mary Anastasia O'Grady of the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration was reportedly working busily behind the scenes trying to secure Zelaya's consequence-free return. And Pepe Lobo was not shy about offering to do the job for them.
When Zelaya was ousted in June 2009, it was the judicial branch of the government which was most united on the matter. In later negotiations, both the international community and the U.S. specifically sought to sidestep the court's opinion and insisted on trying to force the reinstatement of Zelaya by trying to place that decision on the Honduran Congress. Yet that same congress nevertheless overwhelmingly rejected Zelaya's reinstatement (despite reports of attempted arm-twisting by the U.S. administration -- see this account by La Gringa).
The annulment of the charges against Zelaya definitely represents a drastic turnabout on the part of the judicial branch of the Honduran government. The implications of this situation may well become dire for the United States.