Made-For-TV Politics In Honduras

From ousted presidents who sneak back into the country across international borders, to diplomatic threats, Honduras has all the elements of a shocking political drama. Host Michel Martin discusses the current situation in Honduras with Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In our international briefing, a U.S. diplomat visited Cuba recently to talk about postal service, but apparently, talks went further than that. We'll find out what else they talked about in just a few minutes. But first to Honduras, where following this story continues to cause whiplash.

Let's recap. After he was run out of the country by a coup back in June, deposed President Manuel Zelaya snuck back into the country in dramatic fashion a week ago, hiding in the backs of trucks and cars.

He then found refuge in the Brazilian embassy. Last Sunday, de-facto President Roberto Micheletti announced an emergency decree, allowing his government to shut down broadcasters, ban unauthorized public meetings and let the police detain suspects without warrants. But under pressure from the Honduran congress, he later promised to reverse that decree.

Joining us now to bring us up to date on the situation there is Jose Miguel Vivanco. He is executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch. It's a human rights organization. Welcome, thank you for talking to us.

JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO: Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued a statement asking or demanding, I would think, the Honduran government restore freedom of the press. The interim president, Roberto Micheletti, as we said, said he would accept congressional calls for him to reverse the decree. Why do you think he is backtracking, and has he in fact done so? Has anything in fact changed?

MIGUEL VIVANCO: So far, the decree is in place. In other words, the de facto government is implementing the decree. The only change is that for the first time in several days, last night, they decided to lift the curfew. But the radios - a couple of radios that are pro-Zelaya, and the TV station, pro- Zelaya, are both off the air, shut down, and there are close to 100 in prison, and arrest - charged with sedition.

So conditions on the ground are not very different. What is happening is that, for the first time, the business community and the political class that supports the de facto government is showing some signals of being ready to negotiate some sort of settlement and to allow President Zelaya to go back to, you know, as president of Honduras, to leave the embassy and to go back to the presidential palace. But it is still too early to call.

MARTIN: What kinds of people are being arrested? Who is the interim - what kinds of people are targets of the interim government? Is it people associated with the government? Is it just anybody who's trying to make any sort of public support or opposition? Who's a target now?

MIGUEL VIVANCO: They are targeting union members, especially members of the pretty powerful teachers association; mostly organizers who, I mean, people who belong to organizations, grass-roots groups that support President Zelaya and demonstrators on the street. Those ones who are, you know, willing to risk brutality by the police or arrest are the ones who the security forces are going after.

MARTIN: You know, it's a tricky situation for the U.S. Of course, U.S. involvement in the region is a sensitive issue. The State Department has, of course, objected to the coup, and has - but the - and the U.S. State Department told Honduras to end the emergency decree, objected to the emergency decree, of course, curtailing freedom of the press and association. But the U.S. ambassador to the OAS also called Zelaya irresponsible for returning to Honduras. So what stance, exactly, is the U.S. taking, in your view?

MIGUEL VIVANCO: Well, those statements by the ambassador - U.S. ambassador to the OAS - were actually very unfortunate.

I do believe that the pressure should be only on de facto government and it's time to exercise maximum pressure on de facto government, otherwise we are not going to resolve this crisis. And the Obama administration, actually on paper - from day number one, I think, they have been on the right side in terms of principles, vindicating basic values of democracy and human rights and condemning the coup.

They have failed to call this one a military coup, but they have clearly condemned the coup. Well, I think they have been pretty slow in terms of adopting effective measures, sanctions - selective sanctions - to resolve this problem. It took them a couple of months to start thinking about, and adopting actually, sanctions like visa cancellations to those ones who support Zelaya. I'm sorry, who support Micheletti, the de facto government. And without that type of leadership from Washington, it's extremely difficult to do so.

MARTIN: And that is my final question to you. The presidential elections are supposed to be held on November 29th and it appears that Micheletti and his - wants to kind of run down the clock. But do you - and then several countries, including the U.S., have suggested they won't, or they might not recognize the vote without some prior agreement. What is your sense of what would be helpful here? Would it be helpful for the U.S. to insist that Zelaya, for example, be allowed to campaign or what is your organization's recommendation here?

MIGUEL VIVANCO: Zelaya has to be reestablished as soon as possible, as the constitutional president of Honduras. Otherwise, we are going to be setting a very very bad precedent, a horrible precedent for the whole - for the region. It's unacceptable that you carry out a coup, arrest a president, throw him out of the country, and then run out the clock on his presidency and wait for the next election.

This is - I mean the region has a very very dark past in terms of military rulings and lack of respect for democracy and the rule of law. So it's extremely important to resolve this crisis as soon as possible and reestablish President Zelaya in power, allow the elections to happen, but under his watch and allow President Zelaya to conclude his term by the end of January according to the Constitution.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's going to happen? I am asking you to project and I apologize for that. But do you think that that scenario is likely or possible at this point?

MIGUEL VIVANCO: It's very very difficult to predict, because I think everybody here, especially the Obama administration has misread the recalcitrant attitude of the de facto government and their determination to, you know, to stay in power and to hold on there without - I mean disregarding the condemnation of the international community.

So everything depends on the ability of the Obama administration to keep the pressure and to actually increase the pressure by selectively targeting those ones who are backing de facto government in the business community as well as in the, you know, political class who should understand that this is not going to be a new presence of, you know, setbacks in the region in terms of human rights and democratic values.

MARTIN: Jose Miguel Vivanco is the executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch and he was kind enough join us from our bureau in New York.

Jose Miguel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MIGUEL VIVANCO: Thank you very much, Michel.

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