Canada and Honduras: Act Now

If Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to be taken seriously as an international figure, he must be able to simultaneously juggle domestic and international crises without dropping the ball. While the Liberal opposition threatens to bring down Harper’s minority government daily, the Tories must avoid losing sight of the bigger picture when it comes to the rest of the hemisphere. Ottawa policy makers and government agency heads should not allow themselves to become so enamored with partisan squabbles that they forget Canada’s overriding commitment to democracy, which was recently lost on Honduras. Canadian leaders can not afford to delay international action in favour of petty matters closer to home, especially when Canada’s reputation for public rectitude is at stake. There is no time better than the present for the maple leaf flag to rise to the occasion and respond to Honduras’ crisis with its traditional commitment to constitutional ascendancy.

Honduras at a Glimpse

While the elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, remains ousted by the coup that unseated him at gunpoint, Roberto Micheletti (the de facto president) continues to hold power. Yesterday, on September 21, Zelaya made a surprise return to Honduras, and is currently residing in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. In an arrogant campaign to uphold Zelaya’s exile, Micheletti has sought to keep the reigns of power in his hands until scheduled elections are staged on November 29th. Upon Zelaya’s return, José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), called on both sides to remain calm. An extraordinary meeting of the OAS resulted in a declaration which called for “the immediate signing of the San Jose Agreement, full guarantees from the de facto authorities in order to ensure the life and physical integrity of President Zelaya and treatment consistent with his high office, as well as his return to the Presidency of the Republic in accordance with the resolution of the General Assembly.” The San Jose Agreement was brokered by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias and prescribes that Zelaya return with only limited power, and that Zelaya oversee the elections in November. In order to best see how Ottawa’s remoteness from the process and its parochial approach to this mess can be remedied it is prudent to first look at what Washington and Brasilia have done to date.

Hillary and Lula

After floods of criticism followed an initial lukewarm U.S. response to the coup, the State Department has smartened up and opted for a more muscular stance. In the past weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pursued the “termination of a broad range of assistance to the government of Honduras,” while also stating that the United States “would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled [November] election.” Just days ago, Washington increased pressure on Micheletti by revoking his U.S. visa, as well as those of 17 other Honduran officials. Meanwhile Brazil, a rising regional authority, has assumed a similar forceful stance. On September 9th, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stated that his administration would not recognize elections in November without Zelaya’s return. Lula went on to say, “We must repudiate it [the coup] unconditionally and demand the return of President Manuel Zelaya to the position the Honduran people elected him to.”

Even though U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized Zelaya’s last return to Honduras from Nicaragua as “reckless”, after Zelaya’s unexpected return yesterday, she issued a statement showing her approval of what had transpired, “Now that President Zelaya is back, it would be opportune to restore him to his position under appropriate circumstances, get on with the election that is currently scheduled for November, have a peaceful transition of presidential authority and get Honduras back to constitutional democratic order.” Lula’s similar stance is reflected in his ongoing willingness to house Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy, despite Micheletti’s murky threats that Brazil would be held responsible for any violence that ensues if Zelaya is not handed over soon.

Neutrality?

Meanwhile, Canada has been all but left out of the picture in these breaking events. Canadian officials have yet to issue an official statement regarding Zelaya’s return to Tegucigalpa, and have been unavailable for comment today. Canada’s Foreign Minister Peter Kent has continually avoided actions to repudiate the coup, and has maintained that Canada will not apply sanctions as long as negotiations remain on course. Kent strongly advised that Zelaya avoid returning to the country in case it provoked a violent reaction by Micheletti’s de facto government. However, negotiations have not remained on course whatsoever, a fact that Minister Kent is reluctant to acknowledge. Until Zelaya’s return yesterday, negotiations had gone stale. Minister Kent’s oh-so-Canadian attempt to remain neutral and see what happens did not have the desired effect: to depose Micheletti. In fact, inaction has demonstrably done more harm than good. To many observers, Canada’s purported neutrality has translated into nothing more than ennui. If Minister Kent sought to emerge as a national hero, holding steadfast to his agenda, it looks more like defeat to this pair of eyes. By failing to act in any direct or principled way, Ottawa has sent a clear message to the golpistas in Honduras: you can get away with it. Kent’s neutrality on Honduras has meant that instead of fighting for democracy, he and his colleagues have hung up a ‘for sale’ sign on Honduras’ Magna Carta, implicitly endorsing a non-elected leader who seized power through the use of force. This situation sets a horrendous precedent for the future of democratic ideals in the region at large. Is Canada really ready to swallow many years defending democracy at the expense of fielding a meretricious neutrality in Honduras?

Step Up

Earlier this summer, negotiations with the interim government veered off course when an OAS mission to Honduras, with Minister Kent aboard, failed to break the stalemate. The OAS was unable to persuade Micheletti to accept the San Jose Accord negotiated by Costa Rica to reinstate the deposed Zelaya, and since then little progress has been made. In a visit to Ottawa on the 13th and 14th of September, Secretary-General Insulza met with Minister Kent to discuss the crisis in Honduras only for the latter to revert to issuing his usual boilerplates. “I welcomed Secretary General Insulza to Canada, and we discussed our continued support of the OAS as it addresses regional challenges through increased cooperation,” said Kent. He went on to insist that, “Canada encourages collaboration in resolving regional issues, and is providing leadership in strengthening democracy and improving security in the hemisphere.” Following the September meeting, the question of whether or not Minister Kent knew about Zelaya’s planned return remains unclear. Because no official statements have yet been made by the Canadian government regarding Zelaya’s return, one can only speculate as to what will happen next. On the one hand if Minister Kent was not aware of Zelaya’s planned return, it would reflect that he has become increasingly distanced from the crisis; on the other hand, if Kent was aware of it, then it would have behooved him to speak out with plaudits about it, given his previous, hesitant convictions.

Although Minister Kent’s deficit of leadership on Honduras has so far been lamentable, the possibility of redemption remains. If he acts now, it is not out of the question that Canada might contribute to the diplomatic crusade which has been triggered by Zelaya’s return. Canada’s contributions by emulating Brazil might serve as a model for the region at large. There is no better time for Canada to step up to the podium and aggressively pursue- even demand- immediate negotiations to ensure a peaceful transition. As of now, there is no telling where negotiations will lead, and although Micheletti has avoided bloodshed thus far, it is anybody’s guess as to what might happen next.

Upon joining the OAS as a full-member in 1990, Canada took the lead in establishing the democracy-promotion unit, and it is imperative that Ottawa keep to its mandate. It would be unwise for the Harper government to forget Article 1 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter which states that, “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”

Looking ahead

Canada’s lamentably uninspiring foreign policy team is hardly worth its keep if it is unable to take the elementary steps to engage with other leaders in the region, like Brazil, to work towards negotiating a solution in Honduras. After all, it was Canada’s Minister for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, who first conceptualized peacekeeping as a tool to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities. If nothing else, peacekeeping is Canada’s claim to fame. Eventually, regional leaders will ask: what was Canada’s contribution to solving the grave problem of democratic legitimacy in Honduras? Depending on Kent’s actions in the upcoming hours, days and weeks, Latin America will either see Canada as a country that did not know how to do the right thing, or will see Canada as a country that instead devoted its efforts with honour to peacefully restore democratic governance. If Kent’s voice can be made to rise above a whisper, let him act aggressively now, and show Micheletti that the time has passed when coups can be tolerated. As of now, within regards to following disgraceful policy and only halfheartedly supporting the grand design of the OAS, there are good grounds to fear that Minister Kent is more closely resembling the president of Panama, rather than the president of Costa Rica.

One could only hope that it is not too late for Canada to play the “good-cop” role in future OAS negotiations. Canada is in a unique position at this time: Minister Kent did not apply the same sanctions as Brazil or even the US. Perhaps this bargaining chip might prove useful if Minister Kent, at this late date, intends to encourage Micheletti to avoid using violence. With some luck, Canada’s reputation for neutrality can still mean something. After all, Canada is the second largest investor in Honduras, and has strategic interests at stake that depend on the stability of the small country. With that being said, it is important that Minister Kent avoid falling into the trap of preserving said stability in Honduras at the expense of democracy. It is now more important than ever that Stephen Harper work with Minister Kent in delivering consistent, intelligent and rational action in response to the crisis in Honduras. Whether the house is falling down or not, Harper’s government must defend democracy in Honduras and show the world that Ottawa deeply cares about preserving democratic institutions and ideals in Honduras, even to the point of risking its sizable investments there.