Slim Prospects for Truth and almost None for Reconciliation in Honduras

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• President Obama may be the only optimist in the Americas when it comes to smooth sailing ahead for Honduran democracy

• Devastated economy and repeated murders of journalists is almost a fact of life

On May 4, 2010, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Honduras will begin to try unraveling the events surrounding the June 28, 2009 golpe that ousted democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the current president of Honduras and the choice of the country’s oligarchy, followed the lead of other Central American countries by establishing a panel of inquiry ostensibly to provide justice and closure to the crisis that has profoundly undermined the Central American country’s political and economic systems. While this initiative may be a small step toward mending the deep divisions present in Honduran society, ongoing human rights violations have proven to be a serious challenge as violence continues unabated with targeted fatal assaults against local journalists. This raises questions about the country’s dubious potential for peace and reconciliation.

Nevertheless, the Commission may already have served its purpose even before it opens its doors for business, as far as Tegucigalpa is concerned. President Obama already has called his Honduran counterpart to offer him his congratulations, even though this call was premature at best. The Commission has not yet begun its work, and Washington is already lauding Lobo as if the fact that the Commission has been established implies that its objective has been achieved. Or perhaps, like President Obama being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize before he could point to significant accomplishments, Lobo was receiving praise for his aspirations, with the delivery of the goods to come later.

Honduras’ Threadbare Democratic Leader

The Honduran military deposed President Zelaya on June 28, 2009 as Roberto Michelletti, who headed up the Congreso Nacional at the time, stomped into the chamber to serve as its interim leader. For months, the future of the Honduran democracy remained in profound doubt while the international community almost unanimously tried to pressure the de facto government into reinstalling the ousted Zelaya, who meanwhile had managed to sneak back to the country, only to be confined in the Brazilian Embassy.

Despite signing the Tegucigalpa-San José Accords, which stipulated that Zelaya, if only briefly, would be to returned to office, Michelletti obdurately remained head of the de facto government until the country held presidential elections on November 29, 2009. Lobo emerged as the winner of that ballot and assumed the executive leadership of a deeply divided nation, in an election which was barely accredited by the outside world.

Zelaya’s expulsion from office came as a result of his interest in gauging the electorate’s willingness to modify the Honduran Constitution to allow him to run for a second term as president by means of a non-binding vote. This move, though, proved to be too much for the more conservative elements of Honduras, particularly because Zelaya was calling for robust New Deal-like reforms while moving closer to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his ALBA bloc. On the day that the controversial ballot was to take place, the military stepped in to depose Zelaya. There was significant controversy about the legality of both Zelaya’s non-binding referendum and the coup itself (although few argued that the military had intervened in a manner entirely in violation of with the Constitution). Even if the coup had been legal, the human rights violations that the de facto regime allegedly authorized in the coup’s execution certainly were not. Thus, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at best deserves to be seen as representing a tentative step in the right direction. Its ability to fulfill its mission, however, will determine its ultimate utility to Honduran society.

Truth and Reconciliation

The Honduran government announced the names of the Truth Commission members in a press conference on April 13, 2010. The Commission is composed of two international members, “Canadian diplomat Michael Kergan and Peruvian lawyer and ex-ambassador to the Organization of American States, María Amadilia Zavala,” two national members, “Rector of the National University Julietta Castellanos, lawyer and ex-university rector Jorge Omar Casco, along with the intellectual Sergio Membreño Cedillo, who will act as the technical secretary.” Guatemalan ex-vice-president Eduardo Stein will lead the effort. With the team assembled, the Commission will be prepared to begin its work on May 4. However, critics have expressed considerable skepticism over the Commission’s potential for being launched at that time.

It is very likely that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will produce distinctly tepid results, due to the fact that the primary actors in the coup already have been granted amnesty by the Honduran government and because the Commission’s findings used top-secret information which cannot be released to the public before ten years have passed. The Congreso Nacional granted the country’s leading military officials amnesty after the Honduran Supreme Court dismissed cases brought against them for their involvement in the coup. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) denounced this provision of amnesty:

In that respect, the Commission observes with concern that the Amnesty Decree approved by the Honduran Congress on January 26, 2010, contains concepts that are confusing or ambiguous. The Commission observes, along these lines, the doctrinaire reference made to political crimes, the amnesty for conduct of a terrorist nature, and the inclusion of the concept of abuse of authority with no indication of its scope. Although the text contemplates certain exceptions in terms of human rights violations, the language is ambiguous, and the decree does not establish precise criteria or concrete mechanisms for its application.

Nevertheless, the IACHR does acknowledge some instances in which actors in the Honduran coup could be prosecuted, but due to the Amnesty Decree, the opportunity for a settlement along these lines will be limited.

The fact that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will not release its findings to the public further suggests that its efforts are not likely to provide the closure that the nation requires. The Commission has the authority to review classified government documents in their quest for the truth. This privilege comes at the cost of transparency, however, because the details of its findings, which include top secret government information, will remain classified for ten years. This decade-long delay is certain to impede the full disclosure necessary for meaningful reconciliation.

In an April 15 “Latin American Weekly Report” (an intelligence source for news and analysis in the region), reported that “It is a moot point how much ‘truth’ will come out. The government insists the commission’s actions will not be circumscribed, but Stein [the commission’s leader] has made it clear that rather than acting as ‘an inquisition,’ the commission has the nebulous remit of ‘supporting Honduran society in finding ways to strengthen reconciliation.’” Thus, reconciliation, rather than truth, appears to be the primary goal of the Commission. Anyone familiar with Stein’s m.o. in his native Guatemala knows that this is the way he navigates unchartered waters. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be a necessary step for the present Honduran government to achieve legitimacy, but the fact that it has received only a lukewarm reception in the international arena suggests it has some obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, transparency and a sincere attempt to confront the human rights violations that took place after the coup will provide a more satisfactory outcome than the classified report that the Commission will produce. Yet, it is still an open question whether the narrow class-ridden and self-absorbed elite system contains the necessary propellant to open up and homogenize the country’s political and economic culture.

Land Reform in Honduran Society and Prospects for Reconciliation

When evaluating the results of the coup and the growing violence in Honduras, it becomes clear that the country—now beset by chronic violence—is losing ground in its efforts to guarantee the human rights of its population. Even Freedom House, a conservative think tank, found that, “Observers fear that Lobo’s victory will result in a return to ‘business as usual’ in Honduran politics, impunity for human rights offenders, and a failure to address the underlying conflicts and institutional weaknesses that led to the crisis.” Unsurprisingly, these caveats have endured and represent serious and ongoing challenges for the Lobo Administration.

One factor that may have contributed to the coup was Zelaya’s support for a trail-blazing land reform measure. One researcher reported that “When the coup occurred in June, Zelaya had been just a few days away from signing a bill that would have granted land to about 300,000 small farmers who had been seeking private ownership for more than 40 years.” This land reform measure caused serious contentions between Honduran campesinos and the minority but far more affluent members of society. Despite the setbacks imposed by the coup, the Lobo administration made a deal on April 17, 2010 with the Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguán (Muca), who had seized the land they claimed was rightfully theirs. Even this agreement did not come without some coercion through the military’s presence. LatinNews reported, “The land accord, if not the timeframe for its purchase, comes close to what the Muca demanded after invading the land, which belongs principally to the powerful businessman Miguel Facussé, although they were negotiating under pressure after the government deployed 2,500 soldiers and police to the area.”

The pressure exerted by the presence of troops, while land reform negotiations were being carried out, parallel the limited expected benefits of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the government, on the surface, is taking the right actions to resolve the issues that divide Honduran society, the physical threat embodied by the presence of nearby troops, like the vagueness of the Amnesty Decree, undermines the legitimacy of the government’s actions. Only by observing the population’s political rights and civil liberties is Tegucigalpa likely to achieve the reconciliation it claims to seek. The next and most important step requires the improved protection of journalists and media personnel to guarantee their safety, followed by the prosecution of human rights violators. Honduras has been woefully deficient in protecting a free press and providing an independent judiciary—two fundamental factors that will continue to hamper any growth of democracy if Lobo is to preside over a realized democratic society in the future.

Lobo’s Slender Prospects

The democratic crisis that Honduras endured last year presented a serious challenge to its already fragile democratic institutions and its strong commitment to human rights. The crisis and its resolution continue to leave deep divisions in Honduran society that will not easily be overcome. The country had maintained a steady, though far from stellar, human rights record over the past decade until the country’s democracy was upset by the Michelletti golpe.

In this environment, prospects for the potential success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission appear minimal. The Amnesty Decree and the pledged classified status of the Commission’s findings both serve to limit the possibility for true reconciliation within Honduras. While the government may have taken an important step toward reconciliation by approving a fairly vigorous land reform bill, its likely efforts by means of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission appear to have only limited chances for achieving the sought after results.

In the aftermath of the democratic crisis, the government’s inability to guarantee personal freedoms provides dour prospects for Honduras’ political future and certainly for its prospects for a free press. As of now, little hope exists for a thorough investigation of what happened in Honduras beginning last June. Given that its democratic delineaments were less than genuine and that the country’s democratic credentials are more a matter of the future than the past, the press is likely to continue to be the target for anti-democratic forces that today pose such a harsh threat.