Will Honduras' New President End Political Drama?

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The Central American nation of Honduras had a tumultuous year in politics in 2009. After deposed President Manuel Zelaya was run out of the country by a coup back in June, he later maneuvered dramatically into the country, hiding in the backs of trucks and cars, before finding refuge in the Brazilian embassy. Wednesday Honduras swore in a new president and now Zelaya has taken residency in the Dominican Republic. Host Michel Martin talks with Daniel Wilkerson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch about the recent events in Honduras.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we move to a nation which has suffered much political turmoil last year. We're talking about Honduras. It's a dramatic tale with many twists and turns, so here's a quick recap.

Last June, President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was hustled out of the Presidential Palace in his pajamas during a late night military coup. Roberto Micheletti took power as interim. The move drew international condemnation, including from the U.S., but Micheletti refused to leave. Manuel Zelaya then snuck back into the country in dramatic fashion in September, hiding in the backs of trucks and cars. He took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, where he has been since.

Yesterday was the final chapter in that story. President Zelaya - the ousted President Zelaya - left Honduras for the Dominican Republic and a new president, Porfirio Lobo, was sworn into office.

We wanted to talk more about the significance of this saga and this most recent turn of events, so we called Daniel Wilkinson. He's deputy director of Human Rights Watch. He is at our bureau in New York.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DANIEL WILKINSON (Human Rights Watch): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what does it mean that this new president took office? Is he now recognized as the legitimate leader of this country? I want to mention that Zelaya's term was set to end in November anyway, but given the terms of his ouster, this whole situation was very much in flux. So is the new president now perceived as a legitimate leader of this country?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, I think in Honduras he is. The election appears to have been fair. There was a very large turnout and a majority of Hondurans supported the election, and the candidates who lost recognized the results, so its difficult to argue with that. The problem, though, is the circumstances, because this election, you know, took place after a coup. It took place at a time when the democratically-elected president was in effect under house arrest after having been, you know, ousted in the coup and having returned, as you mentioned, and the de facto government had disregarded the Constitution.

It engaged in widespread abuses against Zelaya supporters. And the issue of restoring democracy after the coup was never really resolved. So now we have this election, there's a new president, and the countries around the region are deciding whether or not to recognize the government, and I think most will. I think, you know, the sense is that this, you know, in terms of the coup and the Zelaya presidency, the game is over. You know, the coup won. Democracy lost. And - but the region is left with a very, very bad precedent.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. What is the significance of how this whole story played out? What do you think the significance is for Latin America as a region and for the U.S.?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, you know, in terms of the region, the region has a pretty dark history in terms of military coups and lack of respect for democracy and rule of law. But there was progress that was made over the last few decades, particularly in the '90s in terms of strengthening democratic rule and building what seemed like a very, you know, strong solid consensus throughout the region that coups are unacceptable and would not be tolerated, and then this happens. And this coup in Honduras was condemned nearly universally outside of Honduras. So the consensus is still there, but unfortunately the lesson many are likely to draw is that the consensus doesnt matter. You can get away with a coup. You can get away with arresting the president, throwing him out of the country, running out the clock on his presidency, and you know, that's basically what happened here.

MARTIN: What do you think the U.S. should have done in this case? Not the U.S. solely, but I'm just assuming that the U.S. is the regional power in the area along with - who else? Who else will have influence in that area, Mexico or who?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, you know, a lot of countries could have influence but this really is a case where the U.S. was in a unique position to make a difference, just because of the very strong economic and political and military ties that the U.S. has with Honduras. And, you know, the Obama administration has been on the right side in terms of principal, you know, from day one, condemning the coup and calling for restoring democratic rule. But it was slow to take, you know, proactive action to pressure the de facto government to restore democracy. And you know, I think it misread the situation. The Obama administration encouraged negotiations. It pushed for a negotiated settlement, but it underestimated the recalcitrance of the de facto - the coup leaders.

MARTIN: How would you like the U.S. to proceed going forward, the Obama administration in particular? I mean obviously that is the agent of our foreign policy. How would you like to see the administration going forward respond to these events, and do you think this is the final chapter in this particular story?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, you know, I think for now this is the final chapter in this one. You know, going forward, I think there are lessons to be learned for the U.S. and for the region. You know, the Bush administration was very unpopular in Latin America, for among other reasons its lack of interest in, you know, pursuing multilateral solutions to problems and just sort of imposing its will. And Obama was very popular when he came in because he promised a different approach. And in this case, the Obama administration did really advocate a multilateral solution. But you know, the thing about effective multilateralism like effective teamwork isn't just about everyone getting along and agreeing.

It also means that the individual members take proactive steps to do whatever they can and this - to achieve the common goal. And this was a case where the U.S. definitely could have done more, and I think the U.S. and the region collectively needs to think together how it can establish a mechanism to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. How it will be able to respond more effectively or step in when a crisis like this brewing to make sure it doesnt end in a coup and this sort of blow to democracy?

MARTIN: Daniel Wilkinson is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. He was kind enough to stop in our bureau in New York.

Thank Mr. Wilkinson. We appreciate it.

Mr. WILKINSON: Thank you.

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