The Washington Diplomat
By Larry Luxner
If veteran diplomat Roberto Flores Bermudez is angry about Manuel Zelaya's sudden reappearance in Honduras after three months of forced exile, he sure didn't show it at a recent lunch panel titled "Populist Threats to Democracy in Central America."
In fact, listening to Flores's presentation Sept. 22 at the Hudson Institute — a conservative think tank — it seemed that the former Honduran ambassador to the United States was trying hard to play it right down the middle.
Flores spent a good part of his 17-minute speech justifying Zelaya's ouster, though he chose his words rather bureaucratically and refrained from making any direct accusations against the deposed president whom until early July he had served as ambassador in Washington.
"The government in Tegucigalpa has taken the view that the succession that took place was constitutional and that it followed procedure," he said. "There has been an admission that the way Zelaya was taken out of the country was a mistake, but the legislative procedure was a proper one. This had to be dealt with."
Flores declined to be interviewed individually for The Washington Diplomat. The ex-ambassador — who was replaced by Eduardo Enrique Reina García days after the coup d'etat that ousted Zelaya — spoke vaguely about the impact the continuing crisis will have on immigration and bilateral trade.
"If there is a severance of ties between Honduras and the United States, we can pinpoint a source of probable impact on this issue of immigration," he said. "When the lack of a formal relationship between the U.S. and Honduran government touches issues like deportation and legalization of documents, then we can see there is a difficulty in administering a day-to-day relationship with Honduras. This can also touch on customs, conflict resolution and other trade issues."
Flores, who briefly served as foreign minister under the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, praised President Obama for his initial willingness to re-engage Latin America on a number of policy fronts. But he studiously avoided referring to what happened three months ago as a coup, an overthrow or a military takeover.
"When there was a change of government in Honduras on June 28, the inter-American system became activated. A resolution was adopted condemning what had happened, and the U.S. forms part of this consensus," he explained. "That leads us to today, where sanctions have been imposed against the government in Tegucigalpa and funds for economic assistance and support have been suspended."
"Military assistance has also been suspended, and on Sept. 3 the U.S. government announced that from that moment on, it would not support the outcome of scheduled elections in Honduras," he said.
Flores insisted that the ball is now in the court of the Honduran people, appearing to dismiss the fact that not a single foreign nation has recognized Roberto Micheletti as president.
"We are dealing with our own issues. Direct talks have been set up between Zelaya's representatives and the government in Tegucigalpa. The OAS mediation talks [sponsored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez] were important, but they did not succeed," he said.
"What we should be looking for in the future is that people can express themselves in free and fair elections. We are encouraged by indications that if they are free and fair, they will be recognized. This will hopefully close a chapter in which the Honduran government is not recognized."
Flores added: "If you look at the balance of public opinion, even though Zelaya does have a following, most Hondurans are not in agreement with him returning to the presidency."
Asked by a member of the audience about allegations of police brutality — specifically beating and intimidation of pro-Zelaya supporters gathered outside the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa — Flores offered promises that the interim government of Micheletti would look into it.
"I understand that the government in Tegucigalpa is reactivating a commission that deals with human rights. It is formed by the judicial branch, the minister of security and other agencies," he said. "The purpose is to assess the situation, to see if the allegations are confirmed, because you also have to consider that they might be a political manipulation. An investigation is underway, and the reports will be answered in the most responsible, professional and credible way."
As CNN and other media outlets were broadcasting pictures of baton-wielding soldiers chasing unarmed protesters and dispersing people with tear gas and water cannons, Flores defended the reaction of police and military units, a lengthy curfew and the closure of roads coming into Tegucigalpa in order to prevent pro-Zelaya campesinos from converging on the capital city.
"You must realize that when you have an abnormal situation and thousands of people — and somebody who came back alleging that he has the right to be president — there is bound to be lots of animosity," he said. "Some control has to take place, whether we want it or not, and that's the reason for the curfew — especially when there are calls for insurrection coming from within the Brazilian Embassy."
Flores refused to speculate whether new U.S. sanctions will be leveled against the Micheletti regime, which has promised that national elections would take place as scheduled on Nov. 29.
"We hope these elections will be fair, so that there can be a recognition of a process that began a long time ago. The candidates for president were elected in the primaries of each political party, and the process itself has been open since May," he said.
"There's a significant array of elements that can provide confidence that these elections have been in the works for some time. This is a way out of a circumstance in which the present government is not recognized and does not have the deserved credibility it should have."