Brazil at the Eye of the Storm: Lula, Zelaya and Democracy in Central America


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President Zelaya in the Brazilian Embassy, 2009

Five years ago, on June 28th 2009, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup following a failed attempt to hold a referendum to rewrite the Honduran Constitution that would have prolonged his rule. The political crisis that ensued would lead to one of the most controversial episodes of Brazilian foreign policy under President Lula.

After Zelaya was arrested, still in his pajamas, by the military and sent off to Costa Rica, the President of Congress Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as President. The Supreme Court of Honduras said that the military had acted in accordance with the Constitution to remove Mr. Zelaya. The Organization of American States (OAS) disagreed and, in resolution 953 (1700/09) argued that a coup had taken place and that it would not recognize the new government.

"Rare Hemisphere Unity in Assailing Honduran Coup" titled the New York Times, as officials in Washington DC said they had spoken with Mr. Zelaya and were working for his return to power in Honduras. In the same way, Brazil's Foreign Ministry condemned the coup and called for President Zelaya to be reinstated immediately. Brazil also suspended its aid projects and military cooperation with Honduras. A few days later, the UN General Assembly also condemned the coup, and the OAS suspended Honduras. Brazil later adopted a series of additional measures, including canceling a visa-waiver program, to pressure the Honduran government to reinstate Zelaya, who met with Lula and Celso Amorim during the crisis - these examples are often overlooked by those who criticize Brazil's record as a defender of democracy in the region.

Trouble started on September 21, when Zelaya's wife arrived at the Brazilian embassy, announcing that the deposed President, who had secretly reentered the country, was seeking shelter, along with about 70 supporters. Francisco Catunda Resende, Brazil's chargé d'affaires, only accepted the request after consulting with Foreign Minister Amorim, who in turn consulted with President Lula. Brazil's embassy in Tegucigalpa soon turned into the focal point of violent protests by Zelaya supporters against his opponents in the streets of Tegucigalpa. The Honduran government temporarily cut off electricity and phone lines in the embassy, and UN staff brought in food. Despite its visible role, Brazil declined to assume a leadership role in the mediation process, arguing that the OAS should be in charge.

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In late October, the United States began to support fresh elections, while Brazil continued to argue that the only way out of the crisis would be to reinstitute Zelaya. A month later, Porfirio Lobo won and created a so-called "government of national unity". In late January 2010, Michelleti retired from politics. A few days later, on the day of Lobo's inauguration, Zelaya left the Brazilian embassy, together with Leonel Fernandez, the President of the Dominican Republic, where Zelaya now lives in exile.

Critics of Brazil's strategy during the episode often argue that Zelaya was a threat to democracy in Honduras, and that his removal was the only viable option after his attempt to change the constitution. In addition, they say that President Lula allowed Zelaya to transform the Brazilian embassy into the deposed president's "campaign headquarters", unnecessarily involving Brazil in a domestic conflict. More importantly, they accuse Lula of having taken sides, making it impossible for Brazil to fulfill a mediating role. Finally, they say Brazil's stance prior to the new elections was overly principled. Brazil, they say, should have been more pragmatic, accepting political realities on the ground, which made Zelaya's return impossible.

Supporters of Lula's stance argue that Brazil's strategy was more principled than that of the United States, and that supporting fresh elections without Zelaya amounted to condoning a military coup. After all, the military achieved its goals and successfully removed Zelaya from power. Zelaya may have been incompetent and somewhat authoritarian, yet that cannot, they argue, legitimize a military coup.

It will be up to historians to tell, once all official documents are available, the full story of Brazil's turbulent involvement in Honduras. It seems certain that Brazil was right to condemn the military coup and put pressure on Micheletti to reinstate Zelaya. The first key question is whether Lula was right to allow Zelaya to enter the Brazilian embassy with his supporters, and to allow him to engage with the media during the months he spent there. The second question is whether Brazil was right to oppose fresh elections and insist on Zelaya's return to power, even after the tide in the region was turning, and Washington DC decided to plan without the deposed president.

The crisis also raised important questions about the region's capacity to uphold democracy. Why did Brazil and the United States fail to bring Zelaya back to power? What are the lessons learned? How would Presidents Rousseff and Obama react today? 

Finally, aside from the question of whether Brazil succeeded in defending democracy or not, the episode underlined that Brazil's relationship with the United States would continue to be marked by occasional disagreements about how to deal with crises in the region.

Read also:

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Why Brazil has not criticised Russia over Crimea

Can Brazil Defend Democracy in Venezuela? (Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program)

Photo credit: 1. EPA/SCANPIX 2. AP Photo/Esteban Felix