On June 28th Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was escorted out of Honduras at gunpoint, and forcibly expatriated to take refuge in Costa Rica while Roberto Micheletti, head of Congress, installed a provisory civilian government. Zelaya’s ouster stemmed from his insistence on holding a nonbinding referendum that would have asked voters whether they supported a constituent assembly to re-write the Honduran constitution. Congress, and the Supreme Court ruled it illegal, and saw it as Zelaya’s attempt to stand for reelection. But three months later, the conflict continues. FPIF spoke with Vicki Gass, Senior Associate for Rights and Development at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to understand more about the roots of the conflict and to look for potential solutions. She has worked on Central American social and economic justice issues since 1984. She traveled to Honduras during the crisis.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: There has been much talk on how to mediate the conflict in Honduras. The San Jose Accords is one of them. What do you think is the best solution, and what are the options?
VICKI GASS: Certainly there is the San Jose Accord, but people in Honduras would tell you that the San Jose Accord was really only relevant the first week after it was proposed by President Arias of Costa Rica, in part because some of the clauses or points in the proposal are no longer relevant today. For instance, moving up the election is no longer possible.
When I was in Honduras a month ago, I talked to many people about the San Jose Accord, and they felt that there needed to be a return to constitutional order. That means returning Zelaya to power. In order to have a just resolution, all the people involved who committed crimes need to be brought to justice. That is number one. Number two, there should be no amnesty. And number three, there needs to be a constituent assembly.
The Honduran people want constitutional reforms, and they want more political inclusion. In order for that to happen, the ideal resolution will be to restore Zelaya, and to have the political parties and candidates for the presidency agree to a process of constitutional reform. The representative participation of civil society is a critical component to any reform process.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: Do you think that there is a possibility for an agreement to be reached soon?
VICKI GASS: The rumors in Honduras are that both sides are moving closer to dialogue. Now, if that means there will be a resolution soon is hard to say. It is especially hard to say today because on September 30th it was announced that two Republican members from the U.S. Congress will go down to Honduras which could have the effect of derailing any possibility of dialogue. No other government recognizes the Micheletti regime, yet the members of the Republican party are meeting with de facto president Micheletti and other members of his government.
I think the biggest impetus for a quick resolution is the economic damage Honduras is feeling as a result of the economic and political isolation from the coup d’état. The business sector is clearly getting anxious—it is costing them financially every day the coup remains.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: Some say that Zelaya was planning on changing the constitution so he could extend his term as president. The proponents of this view see Zelaya as another Chavez. There are others those that believe that Zelaya just wanted the best for his people, and that he would have given up the presidency after the November elections. What is your take on it?
VICKI GASS: My take is that given the timeline President Zelaya would have given up power in January. The vote that was due to take place on June 28th was a non-binding referendum that simply asked the question “yes” or “no” to whether there should be a fourth ballot box on the November 29th elections that would allow for a process of constitutional reform. This referendum would later have to be approved by Congress.
So, I think that Zelaya would have left. It doesn’t mean that like President Uribe of Colombia, President Arias of Costa Rica, or others, that he wouldn’t seek a second term later on, five years from now, for example.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: What is your view of how the Obama administration is dealing with the events in Honduras? Do you think that the U.S. could be doing more?
VICKI GASS: On the positive side, the Obama administration has tried to work multilaterally on solving the crisis and reversing the coup. I think that unfortunately since June 28th, there has been some mixed messaging going on. At first, President Obama said it was illegal and called it a coup. But Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was a little less clear, not willing to call it a coup. I think their statements could be stronger. Last week, for example, the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Lewis Anselem, made comments regarding deposed president Manuel Zelaya, which were not helpful to bring a peaceful resolution.
The United States has taken positive steps by cutting off aid and the visas of 23 people, it stopped consular practices, and it stopped joint military training operations in Honduras. However, I do think they could do more. They could cut more travel visas because business elites are the economic support behind the coup. There should also be the freezing of the assets of the people in the coup government, or the people who support them, which are held here in the United States. If you want to send a message, send it strongly. But, don’t work multilaterally in a weak fashion, because it doesn’t help.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: The U.S. has cut some aid to Honduras since the coup, do you think that this is the best way to show that they are against the interim government, especially since its usually the people who suffer more when there is a stop in aid?
VICKI GASS: Certainly the coup government, and people who support the coup have argued that by cutting aid, it is only the people who are being hurt by this. My response is: “Now you care about the poor?”
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere with 70% living in poverty, and 50% of that living on $2 a day. It also has the biggest inequality gap of all countries in the region. The problem is not cutting aid, the problem is the ruling economic and political leaders of Honduras who do not want to share or distribute some of the economic gains. It is a fault of the economic model.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: Brazil has suddenly been thrust to the center of the crisis, should Lula and Brazil take on the role of mediator, or should they try as much as possible to stay outside and let Arias take the lead in negotiations?
VICKI GASS: I think Brazil has certainly been thrust in the limelight in this conflict. But I think that most of the countries are willing to continue to work multilaterally. Either by supporting Arias’ accord or any other that might bring the two sides to the table. Countries are also individually taking action, like the United States, such as cutting consular visas. Brazil has done the same, and most governments are saying that they will not recognize the results of the November elections.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: Do you think there is a significant reason and meaning on why Zelaya chose to take refuge at the Brazilian embassy rather than the Venezuelan, Costa Rican, or any other?
VICKI GASS: I think it was actually a plan. And a smart one. Honduras is polarized, and the people who don’t like Zelaya have bought the story that he is going to become another Chavez, a president for life, and force everybody out of the country. Had he gone to the Venezuelan embassy for refuge that would have just contributed to those irrational fears. Going to the Brazilian embassy was a very smart move because Brazil is a growing power in the region and it has a lot of political weight in the hemisphere. Lula comes from the working class, and was a leader of the workers party. He has proven to be very astute and a wise leader in Brazil.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: There has been much press coverage, public outcry concerning the suspension of civil liberties and human rights abuses. Do you think that if there is enough international pressure Micheletti will give in and overturn the suspension?
VICKI GASS: Certainly the concern on September 27th, when de facto President Micheletti issued the decree limiting civil liberties, that there would be widespread human rights violations. But it is important to know that the Congress of Honduras said that they would not support the decree. Micheletti had to go on television and apologize for these draconian measures and said that he would withdraw the decree. My understanding is that the national congress of Honduras has thirty days to approve the decree. That would imply that Micheletti has 30 days which to rescind or face a public showdown with the Congress. Though we have seen that even though he has made these apologies on national television, human rights violations are still taking place. And that is a big concern. That can definitely be a part of his downfall.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: The OAS has constantly been criticized for its lack of legitimacy in the region. What is your view on its role in the conflict?
VICKI GASS: As a multilateral force the OAS has done a fairly good job. It has acted within its mandate, and within the democratic charter which all countries have signed on to. Immediately after the coup, Honduras was expelled from the OAS. The OAS certainly has limitations, especially within its mandate. They work government to government. They have continued to work multilaterally, have continued to decry the violations, and are certainly willing to help negotiate a solution to the crisis. Remember it was Micheletti that turned back the OAS members of the delegation. But, the OAS is an unarmed force, has a limited mandate, and has done the best it can within the framework.
GABRIELA CAMPOS: Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America, with high levels of inequality and unemployment. It also depends highly on exports of a couple of agricultural products, especially to the U.S. Will this crisis have long term detrimental effects to Honduras, its people, and the hemisphere?
VICKI GASS: I think there are a couple of ways this could play out. The de facto regime could drag out this crisis until the elections and hope that the world will recognize them. I don’t see that, however, as very likely. I think there is the opportunity to turn this crisis into real political change both by supporting a constituent assembly or a process for constitutional reform to address some of these structural issues in Honduras. Without that, we are going to see Honduras erupt over and over again until these issues are resolved.
The final thing I would say is that it sets a dangerous precedent, if this isn’t solved peacefully in Honduras. There are grave implications for democratic countries throughout the hemisphere. Especially countries like El Salvador, where they have a left leaning government, or countries such as Garcia’s Peru, which have the lowest popularity rating in the hemisphere. I think there is an opportunity, but there are also definite risks.