Monday, September 21, 2009

Did Brazil Play a Minor or a Major Role in the Return of Manuel Zelaya?

More news agencies are reporting on Manuel Zelaya's return to Honduras, and there will be many interesting developments over the next few days and perhaps weeks, accompanied by a decent amount of speculation as to what might happen next.

However, one aspect in all of this may go relatively ignored, with little comment on, but it's something I raised in these comments. Specifically, what, if any, role did Brazil play in this?

As we all know, Zelaya is staying at the Brazilian embassy in Honduras, a brilliant move considering that embassy grounds are soverign soil of the country they represent. Thus, while the Honduran military did not mind breaking the law to exile Zelaya back in June, to try to arrest him at the embassy (as Micheletti blustered) would effectively be an act of war, and while Brazil hasn't been involved in an open foreign war since World War II, I know who I'd pick in a Brazilian-Honduran war.

That said, it's clear that Brazil has some role in this whole incident, obviously. There are three alternatives I can come up with (though there may be others I haven't thought of):

1) Brazil had no idea Zelaya was coming back, and when he showed up at the embassy doors, they just decided to let him in. This strikes me as plausible - Brazil, like the rest of the world, has held that the June coup was illegal and that Zelaya, and not Micheletti, is the proper president of Honduras. Zelaya may have gone there just hoping, and if it didn't work out, he could hope to get to another friendly embassy before he was arrested. This does raise the question that, if many embassies would accept him, why go to Brazil first? It may be because Brazil is a big power (bigger than, say, Costa Rica or Italy or most other countries), and he knew it was friendly to his cause. It may also be because, again, the Brazilian embassy allegedly sits next to Micheletti's private home. This would make it the obvious first choice of Zelaya if he wanted to thumb his nose at Micheletti.

2) Zelaya actually tried to go to other embassies for protection before Brazil's, but was turned down. This is possible, too, and could help explain why early reports said that Zelaya was in Honduras, but with no knowledge of where he was staying. There's not much that distinguishes this from the first possibility; still, I'm inclined to believe the first possibility over this one, primarily because Brazil seemed like such a sure bet in terms of friendliness, Honduras' inability to bully Brazil, and Brazil's high standing in the diplomatic community.

3) Brazil knew well in advance, through direct or indirect contact, that Micheletti was coming, and was prepared to accept him should he arrive safely in Tegucigalpa. Whether or not Brazil was active, they would make sure he was taken care of upon his arrival in the embassy. Perhaps they actively wanted to help undermine the Micheletti government, though this strikes me as the most implausible likelihood. Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim (who is in New York, preparing for the UN's meeting on climate change) denied any previous knowledge, and right now, I don't see any reason not to believe him. More importantly, if the Brazilian government was actively trying to undermine a regime, it would mark a major departure from Brazilian foreign relations over the last 7 years. If there's anything one can say about Lula's approach, it has been that he has been the consummate diplomat during his two terms; even politicians in neighboring countries look up to the way in which he conducts foreign relations. To suddenly throw all caution to the wind in any event seems extreme; to do so with the Honduran case in particular pushes the envelope of believability.

4) Brazil knew shortly before or after Zelaya's official departure (from where is still unknown) that he was coming to Honduras, and quickly prepared for his arrival. Again, I just don't see why they would do this; the foreign relations minister insists it's not the case, and again, it would mark a major departure from all that Brazil has stood for in international relations over the last 7 years under Lula.

Ultimately, of these four scenarios, the first one seems most likely to me, though I wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that it was the second. If it's either three or four, I will be more than surprised, and were it to be either of those scenarios, it would raise all kinds of interesting (and perhaps troubling) questions about the direction Brazilian foreign relations were heading. Still, while not the most commented-upon aspect of Zelaya's return, it does offer some fascinating questions about that return as well as possible insights on the role of Brazil in Latin America, in the defense of democratic processes, and in international relations more generally.