Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Honduras

Events in Honduras are moving fast. It seems fairly clear now that Zelaya is returning to power, perhaps as early as Thursday. As I said yesterday, when Obama, the EU, and Chavez all oppose you, it´s unlikely your coup is going to have long term success. However, even if he does return to the presidency, the problems Honduras faces are not going away.

In the end, the nation´s political establishment has one big problem. Neither Zelaya nor the conservatives have much use for democracy or the Honduran constitution. The conservatives have shown their hand this week, but to be fair, Zelaya precipitated this by working to get around the term limit he faces for his office. Not wanting to leave the presidency and perhaps unable to groom a successor who could win and continue his policies, Zelaya has gone the way of Hugo Chavez and sought to remain in power. While Zelaya is clearly more concerned with the poverty most Hondurans face than his opponents, in the end, his first goal is to remain in power.

This all gets to the fragility of Latin American democracy. While the last 20 years have seen amazing advancements throughout most of the region, many countries could fall into the abyss of instability fairly quickly. While Brazil´s Lula may not be able to continue his policies through his successors, his willingness to step down when his term is up is extremely important. Like George Washington and John Adams establishing important precedents of giving up power peacefully in the United States, Lula is doing considerable good for his country by potentially doing the same. Chavez and Zelaya as of yet are unwilling to take these steps for their respective nations.

Nevertheless, Zelaya´s own issues do not justify the coup. Some commentators have wondered whether the coup is legal. This really doesn´t matter. The larger principle is that Zelaya is the democratically elected president of Honduras. In 2009, a coup against a democratically elected government is not acceptable on the international scene. If Zelaya ignores the constitution and seeks another term, perhaps then some action against him could be justififed. But his government is constitutionally legitimate and any attempt to force him out is unacceptable.

While I am presently writing from San Salvador, I stayed another unexpected night in Honduras yesterday. In both towns I stopped in, people were aware of the situation, but hardly alarmed. I did not see any partisan activities for either side, including protests, graffiti, or random shouts. Some men were drunkenly discussing it in a bar. Most people had their TV on the news. But that´s about it. I know that in major cities it is different, with partisans developing on both sides. However, I do think we need to moderate our analysis of people´s response to the coup. In the end, Honduras is a poor country and has been that way for centuries. Regardless of political party, the government doesn´t do much for the campesino or town dweller hundreds of miles away from the capital. Does the coup really affect their lives? For many, the answer is probably, no.

At least as fascinating as the relative lack of response in the provinces has been the news coverage. It´s clear that most if not all the news channels support the coup. This is hardly surprising since, like in most countries, entrenched elites control the media. The news reports are incredibly defensive about the coup. They constantly claim that they were consitutionally right in getting rid of Zelaya, that he is a menace to the country, and that the world does not understand their actions. It´s clear that they severely miscalculated. Much like the Venezuelan effort to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and the Bolivian whites seeking to destroy Morales in 2008 and earlier this year, the Honduran elite seems to have forgotten that it is not the 1980s anymore and that the only way to change a government that is acceptable in the international community is through democracy. This is a huge problem for the opponents of Chavez and Morales. When you clearly and openly don´t care about poor people, how can you win an election? In Honduras though, it´s less clear that the conservatives can´t win an election.

At least in the pro coup protests I have seen on TV, a large number of banners have evangelical slogans on them. While I have no way to prove this, it suggests that some Hondurans are openly connecting evangelicalism and right wing politics. This gets into the long running debate over whether the rapid rise of evangelicalism in Latin America is also leading to conservative politics. I remain unconvinced by this assertion. I think it´s too simplistic and assumes that people simply swallow U.S. evangelicalism hook line and sinker, rather than making it work for themselves in ways they are comfortable with. There is little question, however, that among the Central American elites, evangelicalism and reactionary politics are closely connected. Rios Montt in Guatemala is the most famous example of this, but it´s really quite common. I have few conclusions to make about this phenomenon in the present Honduran crisis except to note that there are some connections and that is is worth watching.

The esteemed historian Greg Grandin has more, and while I would not begin to argue that I have his expertise, I do think he is a little soft on how Zelaya´s own actions helped lead to political crisis. He does discuss Honduran poverty and the incredibly difficult situation the country finds itself in, but it´s not clear that Zelaya is really committed to changing that situation, recent alliance with Chavez notwithstanding.