Many Latin America watchers were thrown for a loop last month when a bilateral meeting in Cartagena, Colombia between Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia suddenly metamorphosed into a trilateral encounter that included Porfirio Lobo, the controversial president of Honduras. It was hard enough grappling with the image of Chavez and Santos, considered to be arch-enemies only a year ago, slapping one another on the back and heralding warm relations between their countries. Now it appeared that Chavez had also warmed up to Lobo, the leader of a government that Venezuela and many other South American countries had refused to recognize since the coup of June 28, 2009 that toppled democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya.
Various media outlets were quick to suggest that, as a result of the friendly meeting, Chavez was prepared to back the return of Honduras to the Organization of American States (OAS). Since Venezuela had been the most outspoken critic of Honduras’ post-coup governments, it seemed conceivable that in no time the country would recover the seat that it had lost by unanimous decision of the OAS’ thirty-three members following the 2009 coup.
But soon more details emerged from the meeting that suggested that there were still significant hurdles ahead for Lobo. Chávez had not in fact agreed to support Honduras’ immediate return to the OAS. Instead the three leaders had drawn up a road map for Honduras’ possible return with the direct input of exiled former president Mel Zelaya, who was reached by phone during the meeting. As had occurred in previous negotiations, a series of conditions were put forward with the understanding that their fulfillment would open the door to OAS re-entry.
According to the Venezuelan government, four basic conditions, formulated primarily by Zelaya, were discussed during the closed-door meeting: the secure return of Zelaya and other officials exiled during and after the 2009 coup; an end to the persecution of members of the anti-coup National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP, by its Spanish initials); human rights guarantees and the investigation of human rights violations since the coup; guarantees for the holding of a future constituent assembly; and the recognition of the FNRP as a political organization. This set of conditions went further politically than the recommendations made in a July 2010 report by a High-Level OAS Commission in which Venezuela was notably absent and the U.S. and a number of right-wing Latin American countries played a dominant role. The report’s recommendations were meant to pave the way for Honduras’ return to the OAS, but appeared to be unacceptable to both Zelaya and the Lobo regime (see “Will new report pave the way for Honduras’ reincorporation into the OAS”.)
Though the trilateral meeting caused surprise and consternation – indeed, some groups in the FNRP expressed deep suspicions regarding the negotiations – it seems that it had been in the works for weeks and that President Zelaya had been consulted early on by representatives of the Colombian government. The fact that the sponsors of this new round of negotiations were the pro-Lobo government of Colombia and pro-Zelaya government of Venezuela generated optimism throughout the region. On April 27th, the foreign ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean, convened in Caracas for a preparatory meeting of the new CELAC regional group, issued a statement of support for the Cartagena mediation process.
No such statement was made by the U.S., however. Although the Obama administration has been heavily invested in a regional lobbying effort to try to secure Honduras’ return to the OAS before the organization’s June 5th General Assembly in El Salvador, it has refrained from showing any public support for the Cartagena process.
Soon after Lobo’s return from Cartagena the media began reporting on his efforts to have various criminal charges against Zelaya lifted by the Honduran judiciary. Charges of corruption had been filed against Zelaya and other exiled government officials following the coup and were considered by many to be politically motivated and designed to keep the former president and his closest allies out of the nation’s politics and out of the country period.
On May 2nd, Honduran officals triumphantly announced that an appeals court had dismissed all of the remaining criminal charges against Zelaya. Honduran law experts, however, including the widely respected former Attorney General Edmundo Orellana, were quick to point out that, as Zelaya had not been exonerated of the crimes for which he stood accused, nothing prevented the charges from being reintroduced at a later date. Zelaya himself made the same point and was subsequently accused of being a victim of “mental persecution” by Lobo.
These legal nuances failed to dampen the enthusiasm of either the U.S. administration or OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. In fact, on the very day that the charges were dropped, Insulza announced that the “principal condition for Honduras’ return to the OAS has been met” and that he would proceed with consultations of member states to see whether to hold an extraordinary session of the OAS General Assembly in which to deliberate on the issue of Honduras’ return. Though none of the four conditions outlined in Cartagena had actually been met by the Honduran government, the Secretary General seemed confident that the situation was ripe for Honduras’ re-entry.
The State Department concurred with an exuberant statement issued the following day: “the United States believes the suspension of Honduras should be immediately lifted and supports OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza’s intention to initiate consultations with member states on this issue.” For good measure, the statement noted that “since his inauguration, President Lobo has moved swiftly to pursue national reconciliation, strengthen governance, stabilize the economy, and improve human rights conditions.” Human rights groups and the FNRP have argued that, on the contrary, Lobo has made little concrete effort to advance these objectives and that the human rights situation remains as bad as ever. As Santa Cruz professor Dana Frank points out in the Nation: “to this day no one has been prosecuted or convicted for any of the politically-motivated killings of 34 members of the opposition and 10 journalists since Lobo took office, let alone for the over 300 killings by state security forces since the coup, according to COFADEH (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras), the leading independent human rights group.”
While Insulza, the U.S. administration and some Central American countries like Panama and El Salvador have insisted that there are no more obstacles to Honduras’ OAS reincorporation, the tone has been much more cautious in South America. Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolás Maduro has continued to declare that “there are four points” that are at the center of the negociation, and that “more work is needed on each of these points.” His Brazilian colleague, Antonio Patriota echoed the Venezuelan position, stating that “there should be no rush” and that it was important “to take the necessary time to reach a firm agreement.”
It is clear that regional divisions that have emerged around the Honduras question remain deep. On the one hand, the U.S., right-wing Latin American governments and smaller countries more dependent on the U.S. are strongly backing Honduras’ immediate return to the OAS. Meanwhile, most governments of South America – a continent that has grown much more politically independent over the past decade – continue to consider that more needs to be done to restore democracy and protect the rights of opposition activists.
In mid-May these divisions came to a head when a diplomatic tussle took place at the OAS. Early on May 13th, the media reported that Insulza had convened a private meeting of the OAS Permanent Council (where representatives of all member countries participate) in which Honduras would be discussed. El Salvador, with backing from the U.S. and Central American countries, intended to use the meeting to press for the holding of an extraordinary session of the General Assembly which would vote on lifting Honduras’ OAS suspension. Within hours, however, the media announced that the meeting convened by Insulza had been unexpectedly canceled.
According to a reliable source at the OAS, several Latin American countries had asked for the Permanent Council meeting to be called off on the grounds that it was “premature.” These countries – which apparently included Colombia – felt that it was necessary to give more time to the mediation effort being led by Colombia and Venezuela.
As this diplomatic wrangling was unfolding, Zelaya issued a communiqué that appeared to echo the sentiment of many South American nations. The United States, he said, had made “diplomatic statements that undermined the possibilities of success of the [Cartagena] process…” He called on the U.S. to revise its position and acknowledge and support the mediation process, in order “to achieve a real and viable solution to the Honduran political situation.”
Indeed, why has the U.S. administration refused to back or even acknowledge the Santos-Chavez mediation process? And why does it seem to be intent on bypassing the process altogether in favor of deliberations carried out strictly within the framework of the OAS, a venue that has so far shown itself incapable of resolving Honduras’ political crisis?
One of the primary reasons, no doubt, is the fact that the Chavez government has a starring role in the mediation effort. Ever since George W. Bush’s administration, one of the U.S. government’s key priorities in the region has been to try to isolate and undermine Venezuela’s international influence at every opportunity. This re-baked containment strategy has backfired and, if anything, generated solidarity for Venezuela in the region; yet, there is no sign that the administration is prepared to reassess its policy.
Perhaps more than anything, the U.S. is not prepared to accept a political mediation in Honduras in which it doesn’t play a leading role. The U.S. has traditionally been deeply involved in the internal affairs of Honduras, a country once dubbed the USS Honduras because of the important US military presence there and because the tiny nation served as a springboard for U.S intervention in other Central American countries. As the recent bilateral agreements to expand the U.S. military presence in Honduras show, the country continues to be of great strategic importance to the U.S.
It’s interesting to note that, back in July of 2009, it was the Obama administration which took the key discussions on Honduras out of the OAS by initiating its own mediation process together with then Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. The outcome of the process – known as the San Jose-Tegucigalpa agreement – satisfied the U.S. despite the fact that it failed to restore democracy in Honduras. It didn't, however, satisfy the majority of the hemisphere's governments, who refused to recognize the elections which brought Lobo to power; and it failed to satisfy Zelaya and the FNRP, who remained politically marginalized and were confronted with constant intimidation and attacks.
This is not to suggest that the Colombia/Venezuela mediation is necessarily destined to bring a just, peaceful solution to Honduras’ political and social crisis. There are fears that if Zelaya does return soon to Honduras, as has been announced, the other prerequisites involving human rights and a possible revision of the country’s profoundly conservative and non-inclusive political system will be swept aside.
As a response to these fears, a joint Colombian/Venezuelan verification commission has been proposed as a mechanism of enforcement to ensure that the Lobo government would follow through on the conditions outlined in Cartagena. But given the short shrift that popular demands have received in Honduras in the past, there is understandable skepticism regarding the likelihood of real follow-up from Lobo once Honduras is back in the OAS.
Both human rights groups and Honduran social movements argue that once the suspension of Honduras’ OAS membership is lifted, there will be little to no incentive for the Lobo government – already under enormous pressure from ultra rightwing sectors – to address the grave human rights situation or work to bring the country back on the path of democracy and the rule of law. Unfortunately, though dozens of members of Congress and international human rights organizations have sought to bring this issue to the attention of the Obama administration, the U.S. and an increasing number of other governments in the region continue to disregard the dire situation in Honduras and push for the country’s immediate reincorporation into the OAS.