TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The top U.S. diplomat to Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, said Honduran President Porfirio Lobo “has taken the country in the right direction” by appointing opposition members to his cabinet in a early effort to form a reconciliation government.
Valenzuela said Lobo needs to form a truth commission “quickly” so that the United States can restore aid, cut after last June’s coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya.
Lobo was sworn in Jan. 27. Most nations –including Nicaragua – do not recognize his government because he was elected in a vote held by a coup-installed regime.
The opposition is already calling Lobo’s first attempts at reconciliation a failure because Zelaya, who left Honduras for the Dominican Republic after Lobo granted him a safe-passage deal to protect him from an arrest order, refused to submit nominations for the new cabinet posts.
“It’s a government of reconciliation amongst themselves. The resistance wasn’t taken into account for this government.
In fact, the resistance has been clear it will not participate in this government,” said opposition leader Juan Barahona, who headed clashes with police and soldiers following the coup.
Lobo’s new ministers, meanwhile called for a return to the quotidian, seeking to close the book on the seven-month political crisis set off by last June’s coup.
“We need to return to normal daily life and reestablish the diplomatic relations that we enjoyed with the international community,” Mario Canahuati, the Lobo government’s new foreign minister, told reporters in Tegucigalpa.
In the capital last week, traffic flowed freely in streets that were abandoned for much of late last year amid soldier-enforced curfews, road blockades and violent clashes between authorities and protesters. This week, soldiers took down barricades and swept the street in front of the Brazilian Embassy, where Zelaya remained during a 129-day standoff that started after he sneaked back into the country last September in a failed attempt to return to the presidency.
Canahuati said it will be “difficult” to reestablish relations in a region where most countries, including the two largest Latin economies, Brazil and Argentina, have said Lobo is illegitimate.
Thirty-six embassies in Honduras have been abandoned since the coup and some are now facing eviction notices, Canahuati said.
More than 50 percent of Hondurans are impoverished in a $14.1 billion economy dependent on remittances, aid and U.S. trade.
As much as $200 million in investment has been lost since Zelaya was forced from office and nationwide curfews deterred business, according to Jesus Canahuati, vice president of the Business Council of Latin America in Honduras.
The political turmoil of the past year has also led to directional changes in the economy.
After Zelaya formed close ties with Venezuela and aligned Honduras with the socialist bloc of countries known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti signed a law during his last day in office which removed Honduras from ALBA.
Lobo, 62, a former congressional leader and cattle rancher, promised to stabilize the country’s struggling business climate and resuscitate the economy, which shrank 1.5 percent last year. But upon taking office this week, he said the government is bankrupt.
Despite allegations from human-rights groups that abuses surged under Micheletti’s rule, the former president of congress was named honorary legislator-for-life by his colleagues in the National Assembly for having seen the country through the post-coup crisis and holding elections in November.
The post office also released a series of stamps featuring him, and the Association of Industrialists named Micheletti the “first national hero of the 21st century.”
Micheletti resisted U.S. pressure to step down before Lobo was sworn in. Though he temporarily put his cabinet in charge of government for six days before last month’s election, he never officially stepped down.
“I’m totally convinced our greatest success as a government was to achieve free and transparent elections,” he said in his final speech as president.
In an attempt to build a reconciliation government, Lobo appointed three minority-party presidential candidates who ran against him to his cabinet.
César Ham, a Zelaya ally who fled to Nicaragua with the ousted president last year, was named minister of agriculture.
Ham, along with others in the so-called resistance front, is calling for a constitutional convention similar to the one Zelaya demanded, which would rewrite the 1982 charter.
Lobo said he is also in communication with opposition leader and runner-up Elvin Santos, Zelaya’s former vice-president, who was not offered a cabinet post.
Some international leaders are acknowledging Lobo’s first moves as positive and reconciliatory.
José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), said Lobo has put the country on a “good path” to eventually rejoin the international body, after it was expelled following the coup. Insulza said the safe passage granted to Zelaya offered the former president a “dignified” way out of the standoff.
The sooner Lobo investigates coup abuses, the sooner other countries will recognize his government, said Adam Isacson, director for the Latin America security program at the Center for International Policy.
Micheletti’s government and the Supreme Court “systematically deny” the existence of human-rights violations following Zelaya’s ouster, according to a Jan. 20 report by OAS human-rights investigators.
Abuses allegedly committed during the de facto government’s crackdown on pro-Zelaya protests included arbitrary mass arrests, shuttering of opposition media outlets, suspension of constitutional rights, a ban on protests, cruel treatment of detainees, and an increase in violence against women, the report said.
The United States has called for the creation of a truth commission, but even that might not result in legal proceedings after the military commanders who ordered Zelaya’s exile were exonerated last week by the Supreme Court. Lobo signed an amnesty for those involved in the coup the day he was sworn in.
“First of all, Lobo’s got to come up with a solution that works for the Hondurans and allows people to sort of move forward,” said Peter Deshazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The idea of a truth commission that actually investigates some of these issues would be helpful. What they want to do is be able to move past recriminations among different political groups and start to rebuild the political system by inspiring some confidence in the new government.”