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Ousted President Returns to Warm Welcome in Honduras

Published: 5/30/2011
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Former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya returned to a rapturous welcome in his homeland on Saturday (28 May), after nearly two years of exile in the Dominican Republic.

IHS Global Insight Perspective

 

Significance

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya's return is a significant step forward and return to normality for Honduran politics, with the country now set to be readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS) and fully reopened for international business, trade and investment.

Implications

With Zelaya permitted to re-engage in politics, his return is likely to see further campaigning for constitutional amendments allowing presidential re-election, although it currently appears most likely that his supporters will coalesce around the candidature of his wife for elections due in November 2013. This will signify a breakdown of the established National-Liberal political duopoly in the country.

Outlook

Zelaya's return should herald some restoration of stability within Honduran politics, allowing the government to refocus some of its attention on other key issues of widespread gang- and drug-related violence and industrial unrest.

President Manuel Zelaya was famously ousted from power in a 28 June 2009 military-backed coup, and forced to leave Honduras for Costa Rica. He subsequently sought exile in the Dominican Republic, although remained active in regional politics and agitated repeatedly for his right to return to Honduras.

Zelaya's return to Honduras was made possible by a 23 May deal inked with current Honduran president Porfirio Lobo (the so-called Cartagena Accord), and mediated by the governments of Colombia and Venezuela (see Honduras: 24 May 2011: Honduras Resolution Draws Closer to Healing Regional Breach). He returned via Nicaragua to Toncontín airport in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, accompanied by former Panamanian president Martín Torrijos and the ministers of foreign affairs of Venezuela and Bolivia, where he was welcomed by several thousand cheering supporters. In his first public address, he called for an end to coups in Honduras, although he emphasised that resistance should be peaceful. "The problem of poverty, of corruption, of the great challenges of Latin American societies won't be resolved through violence, but through more democracy," he declared.

Plus Ça Change…

The former president was subsequently spirited away to the centre of Tegucigalpa, where he was received by Lobo in the presidential palace and also met José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS). Lobo and Zelaya are both landowners and ranchers from the eastern province of Olancho, and—despite their ideological differences—are significantly closer in personal warmth than Zelaya was to Roberto Micheletti, the interim president installed with military support after the coup. This symbolic gesture of fraternity underlined how Zelaya's toppling ultimately appears to have achieved little for the country's conservative establishment, with the former president likely to resume politics with the support of the broad-based umbrella grouping, the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), which was formed after the coup.

Indeed, the Lobo administration has now even backed moves to reform the country's constitution to allow presidential re-election, ostensibly the justification for which Zelaya was ousted in the coup (see Honduras: 13 January 2011: Honduran Congress Approves Controversial Constitutional Reforms). Taken together, this therefore suggests that little, in effect, was achieved by the coup, with Zelaya once again in the country, enjoying a broad base of support, and likely to campaign again on the issue that forced him from power.

Significantly, however, the current constitutional arrangements mean that he is currently debarred from running again for president in 2013, with his supporters petitioning for his wife Xiomara Castro to run for the presidency with the support of the FNRP, now likely to be converted into a formal political party. This would be likely to attract widespread support from poorer sectors of Honduran society, who continue to view Zelaya as the only president in recent history who has acted with their interests at heart.

Nevertheless, Zelaya also remains a highly controversial and divisive figure within Honduras, and his return was not universally welcomed. With opposition to his left-wing politics still strong, particularly in the powerful media and business sectors, a note of dissent was issued by the self-proclaimed Patriotic Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, which issued a statement via radio claiming that the former president's return was not supported by the majority of Hondurans. Irma Acosta, a former congressional deputy for the National Party (PN), advised Zelaya to concentrate on his talents of singing and playing the guitar, but cautioned that he should not return to politics because his time had passed.

A Bounce for Lobo?

Domestically, Zelaya's return is also likely to have a positive impact on approval ratings for President Lobo. With Insulza praising the president's initiative for restoring democracy to Honduras, Lobo emerges from the post-coup period as a moderate mediator who helped to pave the way for Zelaya's return. Nevertheless, the president was also under intense international pressure to resolve the question of Zelaya's status, including the removal of corruption charges that were hanging over the ousted former president (see Honduras: 3 May 2011: Doors Open for Honduras As Corruption Charges Dropped Against Former President Zelaya).

With Honduras now to be readmitted to the international community, Lobo will also see the benefit of resumed aid and donor flows, as well as the removal of legal obstacles to trade and investment. This, in turn, should provide a boost to the Honduran economy, which suffered in the wake of its international ostracism. With the country also suffering from serious problems of violent crime and judicial impunity, the restoration of some semblance of normality should also open a space for the government to concentrate on tackling high murder rates, in particular femicides, murders of journalists, and violence against a range of marginalised groups (see Honduras: 8 March 2011: "Femicides" Continue at High Rate in Guatemala and Honduras and Honduras: 23 February 2011: Honduras Creates Special Crime Unit). Although progress in these spheres is unlikely to be stellar, the recrudescence of violence that accompanied the post-coup instability may now be stalled as the government returns a greater amount of its attention to confronting crime and social protest.

Outlook and Implications

Zelaya will now lower his public profile for several days with a visit back to his native town of Catacamas. Nevertheless, his return will dramatically change the political landscape in Honduras, with his likely re-entry into politics challenging the established duopoly of power alternating between the traditional Liberal and National parties. Moreover, his return will also reinvigorate debate over the establishment of a constituent assembly to consider proposals such as permitting presidential re-election, the initiative that was the ostensible reason for Zelaya's 2009 ouster. More widely, with Zelaya urging peaceful resistance within politics, his return should also herald some restoration of stability within Honduran politics. This, in turn, may allow other key issues of widespread gang- and drug-related violence and industrial unrest (particularly within the education sector) to receive greater government attention, albeit without any expectation of major improvements in the short term. The readmission of Honduras to the OAS will also signal the country's return to the international fold, with the conciliation deal set to be viewed more widely as an attempt to shed Honduras's traditional image of recurrent political instability and weak democracy.
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