By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor
Honduras’ President-elect Porfirio Lobo at a press conference in Tegucigalpa on Monday, Nov. 30, 2009. (AP Photo)
(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration said Monday it recognized the outcome of Honduras’ presidential election, but it stressed that an end to the country’s political crisis would require further steps, including the reinstatement of the ousted former president for the remaining weeks of what would have been his term.
In a sign that the administration’s first big regional foreign policy challenge remains unresolved, other major countries in the hemisphere are refusing to recognize Sunday’s election, arguing that doing so would legitimize Manuel Zelaya’s ousting and enforced exile last June.
Despite concerns about violence and calls for a boycott by Zelaya and his supporters, Hondurans turned out in large numbers and handed victory to conservative National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo.
Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa since slipping back into the country in September, said he would not recognize the election and claimed that “absenteeism triumphed.” But that assertion was contradicted by a turnout exceeding 60 percent, significantly higher than the 46 percent recorded in the 2005 election that brought Zelaya to power.
Honduras’ state institutions ousted Zelaya to block his attempts to extend presidential term limits in violation of the Honduran constitution.
The U.S. sided with regional governments describing the move as a “coup d’etat” despite a Law Library of Congress report in August, which concluded that his ousting – although not his expatriation – was constitutional.
Washington supported an Organization of American States (OAS) decision to suspended Honduras’ membership, revoked Honduran diplomats’ visas and withheld aid.
The administration’s stance drew fire from conservative lawmakers, who saw Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ hand behind Zelaya’s proposal to extend term limits. (Both Chavez and fellow leftist Evo Morales of Bolivia have amended their constitutions to prolong their tenures. Chavez, an ally of Zelaya, has sought a role for himself in the Honduran crisis from the outset.)
An agreement brokered by Costa Rica and backed by Washington calls on the Honduran Congress to vote to reinstate Zelaya as part of a national unity government arrangement until January 27, the day his term would have ended. That vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
’More steps needed’
At a media briefing Monday, Arturo Valenzuela, the administration’s new assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said Sunday’s election was necessary, but “not the last step” required.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Honduras’ ousted president Manuel Zelaya in Washington on September 3, 2009. (State Dept. Photo by Michael Gross)
Honduras must vote to reinstate Zelaya, form a unity government and set up a truth commission, he said, describing the latter as a way “to help the Hondurans make the necessary reforms to their constitutional process and to bring about a fuller reconciliation of the Honduran people.”
Valenzuela appeared reluctant to say unambiguously that the U.S. recognizes Lobo’s election victory, but after being pressed several times on the issue he eventually said, “We see that Lobo was the frontrunner, that he won the election. We commend him for that. He will be the next president of Honduras.”
Lobo, who lost narrowly to Zelaya in the 2005 election, beat Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos by a margin of around 56-38 points, and Santos conceded defeat. Both Zelaya and interim president Roberto Micheletti are members of the Liberal Party.
Sunday’s election was scheduled long before Zelaya’s ouster, and the main candidates were selected in primaries held a year ago. The autonomous supervisory body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, was also set up before the crisis last June.
Nonetheless regional leader Brazil, which has given Zelaya shelter at its embassy since September, is refusing to recognize the election, as are Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina and others.
Another group, including Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, has supported the election, while others have yet to take a clear stand.
The matter provoked debate at a meeting in Portugal of Ibero-American states, where the gathering was unable Monday to agree on a common position. A compromise statement looked likely on Tuesday, the closing day of the meeting.
The OAS refused to send observers to the election and has yet to take a definitive position on the outcome.
Meanwhile regional leftist governments and media continue to denounce the “brutal military coup,” describe Micheletti’s interim government – which was appointed by the Honduran Congress in line with the constitution – as “putschists” and accuse the U.S. of covertly supporting Zelaya’s removal.
“This electoral farce is a new chapter of the coup,” Venezuela’s ABN news agency quoted Chavez as saying, reiterating that he would refuse to recognize any government resulting from the vote. ABN said the election was marked by “a high abstention level.”
Bolivian interior minister Alfredo Rada said Bolivia would under no circumstances recognize a government arising from a process marked by the “force of arms.”
Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez, speaking at the Ibero-American summit, called Honduras a “dictatorship,” accused the U.S. of instigating the “coup,” and said that recognizing “the spurious government emerging from these illegitimate elections would betray the principles of peace, democracy and justice.” (The OAS last June voted to scrap a 47-year-old resolution expelling Cuba for its adherence to “Marxism-Leninism” and alignment with the communist bloc.)
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said the election outcome showed “that democracy has prospered in Honduras despite Manuel Zelaya and Hugo Chavez’s attempts to destroy it.”
He urged the Obama administration quickly to restore aid and reinstate the revoked visas, saying that the U.S. “should stand with the Honduran people as they stand against the tyranny of Zelaya and embrace freedom.”
Roger Noriega, a former ambassador to the OAS and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also saw the election as a victory over Chavez’ vision for the region.
“When Hondurans were forced to decide between Chavismo and democracy they made the right choice,” he wrote. “After months of wrongheaded decisions, the international community can do the right thing and choose democracy, too.”
“Lobo’s convincing margin, [defeated candidate] Santos’ recognition of the free and fair balloting, and the overwhelming turnout should be sufficient to convince any serious government that the Honduran people have spoken, and it is time to move on,” Noriega said.