Smiling broadly, his chest festooned with medals, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, head of the armed forces of Honduras, stood beside Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo as the latter was sworn in as President of Honduras on January 27.
The reason for all those medals might be something of a mystery, but the smile on the general's face was quite understandable since he and several of his colleagues had just been pardoned by the Honduran Congress for having invaded the home of former president Manuel "Mel" Zelaya last April 28, arrested him and roughed him up and then sent him into exile, all of which everybody agrees was a violation of Honduran law. For good measure, the Supreme Court had already found the brass hats "innocent" in a joke of a trial.
Along with the generals, Congress decided to pardon every important protagonist on all sides: Zelaya and several of his advisors (accused of treason and abuse of power for having broached the subject of changing the Constitution) and the group of civilian politicians and businessmen who had overthrown him. The leader of the coup government, Roberto Micheletti, who had resisted all efforts to get him to step down, has been made a non-voting member of Congress for life, which extends his parliamentary immunity from prosecution forever.
The vote on the pardons had the support of Lobo's own National Party. It was opposed by the left and much of Zelaya's and Micheletti's deeply divided Liberal Party abstained.
It is not yet clear if ordinary policemen, soldiers and death squad members who have killed, injured or "disappeared" scores of Zelaya supporters are also now protected from prosecution, or indeed if rank-and-file Zelaya supporters who have gone into hiding or exile can now come back without fear of death or arrest. Just before the vote, the attorney general raised questions about the legality of allowing Zelaya to leave and even threatened Lobo with prosecution, but it would appear that the vote in Congress renders this moot.
Meanwhile President Zelaya and his family, accompanied by the President of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, were greeted by tens of thousands of cheering supporters as they headed for the airport. Fernandez had negotiated an agreement with Lobo and Zelaya whereby the deposed president would leave the Brazilian embassy where he has been ensconced since returning to Honduras secretly in September. Zelaya shouted to the crowd "We'll be back", but specifics are not clear. The Honduran resistance is now concentrating on the fight for a constituent assembly to reform the constitution.
Lobo won a very controversial election on November 29. Zelaya and his supporters, along with most regional governments, viewed that election as illegitimate, as it was carried out with troops on the street repressing members of labor unions, peasant organizations and other mass sectors who were demanding Zelaya's return. He now has the problem of restoring legitimacy for his government both in the eyes of the Honduras people and the world. The gesture of authorizing Zelaya's departure was based on that need.
So for now, the coup organizers and their allies in the Honduran ruling class and the U.S. right have won, and Honduran workers, farmers, students, ethnic minorities, women and others who stood to benefit from a continuation of Zelaya's progressive policies have lost. Micheletti and Congress pulled Honduras out of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America, which means that for the foreseeable future, Honduras will remain an economic, political and military dependency of the United States, and that the Soto Cano military base, the only such U.S. base in Central America, will not be restored to Honduran national control as Zelaya had attempted to do. Lessons may have been learned among other leaders in the region: Much to the disgust of the FMLN, the political party which brought him to power, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes announced that he would not affiliate his country to ALBA for fear of alienating the U.S., and he also recognized Lobo as President of Honduras.
But the reputation of the U.S. has suffered hemisphere wide as the result of the Honduran developments. Although the Obama administration denounced the coup and repeatedly stated that it considered Zelaya to be the legitimate president, in the end it declared in advance that it would recognize the results of the November election even if constitutional normality had not been restored and the pro-coup troops were still in the streets. Many in Latin America read sinister motives into this, suspecting that the statements against the coup were a smokescreen and that Secretary of State Clinton was really pushing for the coup to succeed in maintaining predominant U.S. control of Honduras and its neighbors.
The U.S. was represented at Lobo's inauguration by Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela, whose appointment was approved by Republicans in the U.S. Senate once the State Department had assured them that they would recognize the elections. Few other countries were represented.
Photo: Honduras has a number of ethnic and indigenous minority groups, like this young Tolupán woman, all of whom are at risk of losing progress made during the Zelaya administration. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lonqueta/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0