Freedom in the World
The period since the June 2009 coup has featured few improvements in rule of law. Human rights activists, journalists, union leaders, and members of the anticoup movement continued to be targeted in attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations in 2010. President Porfirio Lobo took office in January, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established to investigate events surrounding the coup started operating in May. However, the commission’s mandate was limited, and the national government generally ignored politically motivated violence during the year, creating an environment of impunity for human rights violations.
The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, some 18 years after independence from Spain. The country endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected governments, with the last military regime giving way to civilian authorities in 1982. However, the military remained powerful in the subsequent decades; the first president to exercise his constitutional authority to veto the military and choose its leaders did so in 1999.
Under civilian rule, power has alternated between the Liberal Party (PL) and the National Party (PN). In the 2005 elections, José Manuel Zelaya of the PL defeated the PN’s Porfirio Lobo in the presidential poll. In concurrent parliamentary elections, the PL won 62 seats, the PN took 55, and three minor parties captured the remainder. The run-up to the balloting had been marred by political violence that left several PL supporters injured and at least two dead.
Under Zelaya’s administration, political polarization increased in an environment characterized by poor policy performance and faltering public institutions. The president deepened the country’s political divisions, including within his own party, and pitted factions of the political and business elite against one another through increasingly populist posturing. In 2008, he brought Honduras into two Venezuelan-led regional trade initiatives, drawing objections from business organizations, the opposition, and elements within his own government.
Zelaya announced in March 2009 that he would push forward with a highly controversial overhaul of Honduras’s constitution, including the elimination of presidential term limits. His opponents interpreted the proposal as a power grab, although the constitutional reform process would have begun only after the end of his nonrenewable four-year term in 2010. Zelaya’s plan to hold a nonbinding referendum in June to gauge support for the overhaul sparked a political crisis. In May, the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti of the PL, declared that the proposed reforms were prohibited by the constitution and the June balloting would be illegal. The military, siding with Micheletti, announced that it would not participate in the mobilization of ballots, as is customary during Honduran elections. In response, Zelaya dismissed army commander Romeo Vásquez on June 24. The following day, the Supreme Court ordered Vásquez’s reinstatement, claiming that his removal was unwarranted. Zelaya refused, and led a group of supporters to collect ballots for the referendum, vowing to follow through with the vote as scheduled.
On June 28, the day of the intended poll, armed soldiers abducted Zelaya from the presidential palace and forcibly deported him to Costa Rica. Congress accepted a forged letter of resignation later that day and named Micheletti the acting president. While Micheletti argued that Zelaya’s removal was allowed by the constitution, the international community condemned the coup and continued to recognize Zelaya as the legitimate president. Both the UN General Assembly and the Organization of American States demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement.
The de facto government curtailed civil and political liberties in the months following the coup, particularly in September after Micheletti issued an executive decree suspending civil liberties for 45 days. Police were granted new powers of detention, all public meetings were banned, and the security forces were effectively permitted to act without regard for human rights or the rule of law. Nationwide curfews were imposed at times, and public demonstrations supporting Zelaya’s reinstatement were violently suppressed, which reportedly resulted in the death of several protesters. Media outlets and journalists faced harassment, threats, power outages, and blocked transmissions; authorities also temporarily closed radio and television stations. Civil society organizations and human rights defenders similarly encountered harassment, including increased surveillance, threats, and physical assaults. Micheletti reversed his decree under international pressure on October 5, though many of the abuses continued.
Zelaya reentered the country on September 21, but took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, where he remained through the end of 2009 under threat of arrest by the de facto government. The international community fostered lengthy negotiations aimed at reinstating Zelaya and allowing him to serve out his legal term; many countries warned that they would not recognize the national elections scheduled for November if the coup leaders refused to comply. Nevertheless, the talks repeatedly broke down, and the de facto authorities pressed ahead with the elections. Lobo won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote, defeating Zelaya’s vice president, Elvin Santos Lozano of the PL. The PN captured 71 seats in Congress, followed by the PL with 45, and three smaller parties with the remainder. Despite Zelaya’s call for a boycott, turnout was reportedly not much lower than in previous elections.
Lobo was inaugurated in January 2010, and Zelaya went into exile in the Dominican Republic the same month. However, the new government made little progress toward restoring the rule of law in Honduras. After a visit to Honduras in May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) voiced concern over the high rates of violent crime and continued human rights violations—including the harassment and killing of journalists and human rights activists—in the aftermath of the 2009 coup. As of May, the IACHR reported that only 12 people had been charged with human rights violations related to the coup. The four lower-court judges who challenged the legality of the coup in 2009 were dismissed from their posts in May 2010. The judges subsequently appealed to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to review their cases. Also in May, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with leading an impartial investigation into events surrounding the coup began operating, though it received little institutional support and was considered ineffective because of its limited mandate and difficulties in accessing the key players involved in the coup.
Honduras’s political crisis, combined with the global economic downturn, has severely inhibited economic activity, isolated the country from major trading partners, and exacerbated existing poverty.