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Commentary: Sanctions take their toll in Honduras
One year after the post-coup election in Honduras, the ongoing search for legitimacy comes at a high cost for its people. Human rights advocates are alarmed by continued human rights abuses, in particular by politically motivated attacks on journalists and on the opposition. Insufficient investment in prosecuting the accused and protecting those at risk has led international and national groups to denounce the climate of impunity. The government has attempted to address the issue, albeit unsuccessfully.

Organized crime and narcotrafficking have benefited greatly from the political crisis. Increased drug trade and the resulting rise in crime threaten the relative stability of the country. The state's ability to counter these social menaces is reduced because security forces are being deployed to maintain order in face of citizens' protests. In addition, at a time when Honduras is already overwhelmed by narco-fueled organized crime, the recent crackdown on crime in Mexico could push drug cartels further South. This potentially explosive situation calls for a regional response.   

The region remains divided, blocking Honduras' readmission to the Organization of American States (OAS), which is the foremost multilateral organization in the hemisphere. Some countries, including Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela, refuse to recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo, as legitimate.

The Nov. 29, 2009 election was controversial because head of the de facto government, Roberto Micheletti -in the transition period following the military ousting of former president Manual Zelaya- refused to step down prior to the election. Although Zelaya's removal triggered rapid and unanimous condemnation from countries worldwide, this unity soon dissolved, hindering the conflict resolution process.

This serves as a reminder that democracy is deeper than the act of holding elections. Democracy requires credible institutions capable of representing diverse segments of society and setting the parameters to solve societal disagreement. Prior to the Honduras coup, there were warning signs that institutions were in precarious condition, as they remain in neighbouring Nicaragua; what was and continues to be a problem is determining how to respond in a way that does not violate state sovereignty.

Canada spearheaded the creation of the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001. It was designed to respond to threats to any "unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime." In Honduras, there was no doubt that Zelaya's removal from power fit this description. Yet the strong ideological stances that prevailed on the inter-American stage in the aftermath of the coup have complicated the Charter's application. A year after the fact, states should surmount ideological views and recognize the newly elected government, putting the needs of the Honduran population first. Questions of justice are better left to the truth commissions designed to address them. OAS efforts could be better spent building agreement on early warning signs so that underlying issues and conflicts can be addressed before they reach the crisis point. The country is the second poorest in the region, behind Haiti, and its citizens are the ones suffering from their country being caught in regional political limbo.  

Having the most open economy in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras was hit hard first by the global economic meltdown and soon after by international sanctions following the coup. On Nov. 10, the World Bank approved a US$74.7 million loan to balance the country's budget. But the people of Honduras will only see few of the loan's benefits if the economy is not supported by stable political institutions.  

Lobo announced early this month that he would fly to the Dominican Republic to visit former president Zelaya in an attempt to shore up legitimacy and gather domestic support, reaching out to opponents including supporters of Zelaya, such as the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP). Zelaya is unwilling to return to the country until he is guaranteed full amnesty. Some Hondurans have expressed concern that his return would only exacerbate an extremely divided society.  

The current administration's commitments to improve education, reduce poverty and increase access to health care have the potential to improve the lives of Hondurans. But the benefits of such programs should reach the people, and this involves directly addressing narcotics-fueled organized crime. A regional approach to such issues is essential and yet Honduras was the only Latin American country not invited to the Ibero-American Summit that is being held on Dec. 3 and 4.

Further delaying Honduras' full re-entry into the international community only complicates recovery.

Lesley Burns is policy analyst on inter-American affairs at the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).

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