Washington Stresses Urgency of Honduran Unity Government

In a renewed effort to save a U.S.-sponsored accord to resolve the five-month-old political crisis in Honduras, the U.S. State Department Friday called on both sides to create a government of national unity "without delay" and on the Honduran Congress to "swiftly" consider the restoration of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
Failure to do so would make it less likely that the elections currently scheduled to take place Nov. 29 will gain international recognition, warned a State Department spokesperson.

"Both sides need to return to the table and negotiate the formation of a government of national unity," the spokesperson told IPS. "Both sides need to adhere to the spirit and letter of the accord that they signed, including on the issue of President Zelaya’s restitution."

"The Tegucigalpa/San Jose Agreement provides a pathway to free and fair elections, the outcome of which, if handled accordingly, will be widely accepted both within Honduras and abroad," she said.

"Failure to implement the accord could jeopardize recognition of the election by the international community," she stressed, adding that Washington is pressing the de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti and other actors in Honduras to avoid "taking actions that would impede the carrying out of free, fair and transparent elections, such as [recent] decrees [by the de facto government] that restricted civil liberties and closed certain opposition media outlets."

She also noted for the first time since the Jun. 29 coup that ousted Zelaya and sent him into exile that Washington has been and remains "concerned" about the human rights situation in Honduras under the de facto regime.

The spokesperson’s statement, which followed an intense, 48-hour mediation effort in Tegucigalpa by Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly, appeared designed to add pressure on all parties in Honduras to implement the Oct. 30 accord and to move Washington closer to the position taken by the Rio Group of 24 Latin American and Caribbean nations which earlier this week declared they would not recognize the results of the impending elections unless Zelaya was immediately restored to office.

"The Obama administration is ramping up pressure on the Honduran Congress to fulfill the spirit of the accord and vote for Zelaya’s return," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based a hemispheric think tank.

"The statement is also signaling that, even if Washington recognizes the election results, the new Honduran government is going to face real problems in dealing with the rest of the international community," he added. "And without backing away from its position, the State Department is now trying to bridge the gap between Washington and the rest of the hemisphere on the Honduras question."

The original accord provided for a step-by-step process to restore the constitutional order in Honduras, beginning with the formation of a unity government and ending in the Nov. 29 elections for a new Congress and president that would assume their positions in January.

Brokered by the U.S., the accord was backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and its member countries.

But Latin American leaders and some U.S. Democratic lawmakers were shocked when, on Nov. 4, Washington’s chief negotiator on Honduras, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, told a CNN interviewer that the U.S. would recognize the results of the election regardless of whether Zelaya was restored to the presidency.

U.S. officials – most recently Washington’s representative to the OAS, Lewis Anselem, during a debate earlier this week – pointed out that the literal terms of the accord did not require Zelaya’s restoration but instead left it to the Honduran Congress to decide his fate.

Shannon’s position – apparently the result of a deal with right-wing Republican senators who until then had held hostage a number of appointments to key positions in the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Bureau – provoked cries of betrayal by Zelaya, and his supporters and consternation in the OAS and throughout Latin America, particularly Brazil whose embassy in Tegucigalpa has served as Zelaya’s refuge since he snuck back into the country in September.

It also helped precipitate the apparent collapse of the accord, as the leadership of the Honduran Congress said they intended to delay a vote on Zelaya’s restoration at least until after the elections and Micheletti announced that he had put together a unity government without any input from Zelaya.

Meeting in Jamaica Nov. 5, the Rio Group of 24 Latin American and Caribbean foreign minister issued a communiqué insisting that its members would not recognize the outcome of the Nov. 29 elections unless Zelaya was immediately returned to office. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza issued a similar statement and announced that the hemispheric group would not send observers to the upcoming elections.

It is in this context that Friday’s statement – and particularly its exhortation addressed to both sides to adhere to the "spirit," as well as the "letter" of the accord, including on the issue of President Zelaya’s restitution" – offers a potentially significant, if subtle, change in Washington’s stance.

In another passage of the extensive guidance prepared by the State Department, the spokesperson conceded that "The accord does not have an exact timeline for a Congressional decision. However, the spirit of the Accord suggests that the Congress should deal with the issue in the most expeditious manner possible. We urge the Congress to move swiftly on this matter," she said.

"The Obama administration may have lost its leverage (with Shannon’s Nov. 4 statement)," said Shifter, "but it does not want to let the Honduran Congress off the hook."

"It’s a hopeful move, both because it recognizes for the first time that human rights violations have taken place and that elections will not be recognized internationally unless the spirit, as well as the letter, of the accord is complied with," agreed Vicki Gass, a Honduras specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "It’s clear that the administration is trying to repair the damage it has inflicted over the last ten days."

Gass, however, expressed doubt that the Nov. 29 elections could still be considered legitimate even if Micheletti and the Congress heed Washington’s new message and restore Zelaya to office. Fifty-five of 128 Congressional candidates, and more than 100 of 298 mayoral candidates, including the incumbent of Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula, have withdrawn from their races, she said, as has Carlos H. Reyes, an independent candidate who has been running third of five decided among five candidates in recent polling.

And, as the State Department spokesperson noted, pro-Zelaya broadcast stations that were closed earlier this fall are still facing interrupted service on certain news programs, while an Oct. 5 decree providing for the revocation of the operating licenses of media outlets deemed to violate national security and public order remains in effect.

While Washington supports the elections, she said, "it is self-evident … that while [they] are a necessary element to restoring democratic and constitutional order in Honduras, they are insufficient by themselves to achieving reconciliation in Honduras and fully restoring the democratic order."

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.