When President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya finally returned to Honduras on Saturday, May 28, almost two years after he was deposed in a June 2009 military coup, the sea of people in red t-shirts greeting him at the Tegucigalpa airport and protesting the coup extended so far out into the streets that no one could really count them. It was by far the biggest demonstration in Honduran history. Even the pro-coup El Heraldo estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people. TV Channel 11 said 900,000—or eleven percent of the entire Honduran population.
But what did Zelaya’s triumphant return really mean? Certainly not that justice has been restored to Honduras, repression ended or social justice addressed. The accord with current de facto President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, offers nothing beyond dropping the trumped-up charges against Zelaya, permitting his re-entry.
Zelaya’s return does have enormous popular significance. Even for those who are quite critical of him, he is the grand symbol of resistance to the military coup and of constitutional order. His return offers a brief gleam of hope and dramatically changes the political landscape in Honduras.
But supporters of the ongoing coup regime are happy, too. Up north, the US mainstream media was quick to declare that "the crisis is now over." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s been desperately seeking Zelaya’s return in order to create the semblance of two-party democracy, immediately announced that Honduras could now be readmitted to the Organization of American States. The fix was in: on Wednesday, June 1, the OAS indeed readmitted Honduras, with only Ecuador dissenting.
But the pact does nothing real to address the human rights crisis in Honduras. As a statement issued by twenty prominent groups—representing Honduran judges, ministers, women, indigenous, gay people, Afro-Hondurans and human rights activists—underscored, the original conditions for readmission to the OAS, including prosecution of the coup perpetrators, have by no means been met. "Innumerable violations of human rights" were committed during the coup, they note, but the accord "doesn’t record these facts; nor does it establish an effective mechanism for their investigations, sanction, and adequate reparation.”
Repression of the opposition in the past three months has in fact been worse than it was in the period immediately following the coup. Lobo’s police and military now routinely use tear gas canisters as lethal weapons, threats and assassinations of opposition journalists continue (including two murders in May) and free-range paramilitaries pick off campesino activists one by one in the Aguán Valley, where four people were killed in May alone. Two days after the accord, Lobo’s police used tear gas and live bullets against a group of high school students protesting their math teachers’ dismissal.
The judiciary system, moreover, is largely nonfunctional. Complete impunity reigns for the over thirty-six politically-motivated assassinations and over 300 suspicious murders of opposition members since Lobo took office, according to COFADEH, the leading independent human rights group in the country. The same military officers who perpetrated the coup are in charge of the armed forces and the state-owned telephone company.
Lobo—himself elected in a fraudulent November 2009 election, controlled by the army and boycotted by the opposition and international observers— weakly promises in the accord to pay attention to human rights. But with nothing concrete in the text, it’s merely the fox swearing he’ll guard the chicken coop even more carefully. "Human rights are not subject to political negotiation," COFADEH emphasized, in response to the accord.
A large and growing segment of the US Congress, fortunately, isn’t fooled. On May 31, eighty-seven members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary Clinton, sponsored by Representatives James McGovern, Jan Schakowsky and Sam Farr, expressing concern over the human rights situation in Honduras and demanding a suspension of US military and police aid to Honduras—up from 30 signers of a similar letter last October.
And what about the Honduran resistance, which has already paid such a terrible price?
It’s pivoting to deal with the new reality of Zelaya’s presence and his accord with Lobo. Internally, a ferocious debate is raging, between those who support the entrance of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) into electoral politics right now—which could translate into formal political power, but risks patronage opportunism and slippage into a revived version of the old oligarchic Liberal Party—and the social movement base within the opposition, which wants to build a horizontal base more slowly and is concerned about decision-making processes within the frente.
In this new, rapid-fire political context, the question is how to seize the moment and translate that mass of politically-engaged Hondurans in red t-shirts into fundamental social, economic and political change. As Eugenio Sosa, a prominent Honduran intellectual, queried on the radio as Zelaya’s plane was about to land, "This multitude—for what?"