I had the privilege of being part of a distinguished group that traveled to Honduras to serve as an international observer for the Honduran elections that took place on November 29, 2009.
We were warmly received by our hosts, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. (TSE) Hondurans were happy to see international observers, almost 400 strong from various nations, which came to their country to offer support for the electoral process. This was a controversial election largely de-legitimized by the international community including the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS).
These organizations plus numerous other countries in Latin America chose not to recognize the outcome of the elections because the voting was taking place five months after the Supreme Court and the Honduran Congress ordered the military to expel the former, President Mel Zelaya, from the country. He was removed from office amid accusations that he violated the constitution on eight accounts.
Though the military forcibly removed Zelaya and placed him on a plane to Costa Rica this was not a classical coup as the military was carrying out orders issued by the civilian government. In spite of the fact that Zelaya had violated the Honduran Constitution by calling for an illegal referendum to perpetuate himself in power and though the Congress and Supreme Court acted to protect the constitution, the removal of Zelaya was viewed by many countries as an illegal act. In calling the removal of Zelaya a coup, many have failed to recognize that the military retreated to their barracks and have had no role in governing the country since then.
The Honduran government’s main concern about the elections was that many citizens would either abstain or simply not vote. These elections were not about who the winning candidate was going to be but about the legitimacy of the system and the constitutional continuity of the country.
We arrived two days before the election. Members of the team assigned to escort me and my teammate, Kerry Healy, former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts on Election Day, introduced themselves to us on the first night. Composed by a very nice group of young lawyers, the local team kindly placed itself at our service a day before Election Day. We gladly accepted their offer but we also expressed our desire to mingle with the crowd in Tegucigalpa and talk to the people we choose. This was no problem.
For several hours that day and on the day of the elections, we talked to ordinary people in the streets. We spoke with rich and poor, white, mestizo and African. We went to the rich neighborhoods and to the shantytowns. We talked to civilians and soldiers. We spoke with supporters of Micheletti and of Zelaya. They were a definite minority but nonetheless felt that Zelaya’s removal was like removing the people’s power. We even spoke with Zelaya’s first cousin and Zelaya’s own Defense Minister, Edmundo Orellana, who resigned from the cabinet because of his opposition to Zelaya’s constitutional reform and the ouster of the chief of the armed forces. We met Mr. Orellana at a voting center where he told us that he was voting only because this was a form of respect for Honduras’ laws. However, he told us he disagreed with the way Zelaya was ousted. According to Orellana, Zelaya should have been arrested and prosecuted but not sent into exile.
The shantytowns we visited had no infrastructure, no electricity and no normal running water. The first question we asked was; "have you been intimidated by anyone to vote or not to vote? Unanimously the answer was "no". Nobody was threatened one way or the other. We could also see the faces of the people on Election Day and before that, they looked mostly glad and very proud of their country’s procedures.
As we were talking to people we asked the question; "why did you reject Zelaya knowing that his connection to Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez may have benefited poor people in the country"? The answer we received was that most probably Honduras may have become another Venezuela, a country ruled by a dictator on the one hand, and immersed in intense civil conflict and violence on the other hand. We were astonished as to how these simple people living in one of the most underprivileged countries in the world came to a conclusion that the most educated in the first world have not yet reached.
Following this, some explained to us that Honduras is a country largely dominated by the Catholic Church, which has encouraged peaceful attitudes and civic discourse. Thus, they claim, "It was foreign elements that wanted us to move in a direction of strife and conflict". Members of the military and law enforcement we talked to found a plethora of foreign elements involved in the resistance particularly from Venezuela and Nicaragua. A middle rank officer I spoke with, showed me an e-mail sent to him by somebody in the "Resistance" (the name given to Zelaya’s supporters) warning the officer that the Venezuelan embassy was planning some demonstrations and mutinies on Election Day. Other officers in the military also told us about the presence of Iranians in the country.
Yet, according to the police and according to what we saw with our own eyes, the intensity of the "resistance" was not very significant. Most of the opposition activity consisted of painting graffiti and of property vandalism usually carried out at night. In other words, they did not feel strong enough to act during the day. On Election Day, we did not see any sign of "resistance" activity not even a light demonstration.
Contrary to the Government’s concerns, there was a high voter turnout of 62%, which was higher than in 2005 with voter participation at 46%. Hondurans wanted to restore democracy and repudiated Chavez’s puppet, Manuel Zelaya. The "resistance" was weakened not by police repression but by the fact that it remained isolated under the overwhelming force of the people’s will. There was no intimidation either by the government or by the opposition.
I am still amazed how this small country where the US Ambassador enjoys almost the status of a second president gave a lesson to the world. Honduras stopped Chavism with a pacific attitude. Chavismo was rejected by the good instincts of the Honduran people.
Whereas the military and other government functionaries in Venezuela allowed Hugo Chavez to bribe them; while some members of the opposition in Venezuela continue supporting an institutional setting that no longer serves them or the people; and; where many "good people" in Latin America have been co-opted by Bolivarian "easy money", and false promises, Hondurans rejected the imperial human corruption of Chavez.
What motivated the poor and simple Hondurans to reject this? It is my conclusion that it was a high degree of moral clarity, a moral clarity that is not shared either by OAS President, Jose Miguel Insulza, Brazilian President, Lula Da Silva, Argentinean President, Cristina Kirchner, and Spanish Prime Minister, Rodriguez Zapatero.
By far my role as an election observer in Honduras on Thanksgiving Weekend was one of the most humbling experiences I ever had. Events in Honduras helped to open a debate that has been non-existent in over a decade of Chavez’s rule. For academics, foreign policy experts and decision makers, Latin America is currently offering a model without precedent in history. Indeed, in the continent there are dictatorships that are born as outcomes of democratic practices and there are "coups" that counteract authoritarian practices. In Honduras, Chavism was stopped. As a result, Honduras could be called the political Stalingrad of Latin America. The Honduran people are unique. They deserve our utmost respect for displaying high morals and for having played an exceptional role in history.
Luis Fleischman, senior advisor to Menges Security Project at the Center for Security Policy. He served as an international observer during the last Honduras general elections.
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