Honduran Leaders Fumble, Crisis Worsens

In times of great turmoil, the steady hand of capable leaders can provide citizens with comfort and the hope for better days. Sadly, in the current Honduran stand-off, Roberto Micheletti and Manuel Zelaya have shown themselves to be political novices without the maturity and intellect to guide this country out of this crisis.

De facto President Roberto Micheletti has revealed that he knows neither how to be a good democrat or a good autocrat. In the past ten days, Micheletti has let the military and police run amok in the capital. The result: hundreds of people detained and injured and as many as ten killed.

Then, on Sunday, Micheletti declared a state of exception in the country, suspending for up to 45 days (with the possibility of renewal) the inviolability of personal freedom, freedom of assembly, free speech, freedom of movement, and due process. He then proceeded to raid and shut down the two national television and radio outlets that supported Zelaya. Micheletti's government also refused to allow entry to an OAS delegation to enter the country and demanded that Brazil define Zelaya's status as visitor.

One might think that this would give him solid autocratic credentials. But he hasn't even been able to get that part right. Less than 24 hours after declaring the state of exception, Micheletti did an about-face, apologized to Hondurans, and said he would try to lift certain provisions this week. Why? First, he received heavy international criticism. As a State Department spokesman lamented, "I think it's time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel. With every action they keep on making the hole deeper." Second, Honduran congressmen informed Micheletti that the state of exception would leave only two weeks for free campaigning before the scheduled elections, for which they desperately want international legitimacy. Shockingly, it seems as if Micheletti--who has been waving the election banner since becoming President--had not even considered this.

Back on the international stage, Micheletti also sent a "big hug" to Brazil's President after sending a stern warning, and then acceded to allow entry to the OAS delegation. Overall, Micheletti's arbitrary, capricious behavior brings confidence to no one.

Meanwhile, Zelaya also seems unable to figure out which line he wants to take. Like Micheletti, Zelaya drew harsh international criticism for what many deemed a reckless return. And now, after repression thwarted his attempts to mobilize masses of people in Tegucigalpa, he remains stuck in the Brazilian embassy. Some have said that Zelaya was savvy to force Micheletti's hand and reveal the current regime's repressive nature. But Zelaya seems to have returned without a Plan B or a broader strategy; he was so focused on returning to Honduras that he ignored all other considerations of how to resolve this crisis.

Zelaya has also been unable to hold his rhetorical ground. Last week, a delegation of four pro-Micheletti presidential candidates visited him in the embassy. Right after the meeting, Zelaya said this was an important step in the dialogue to resolve the crisis. Then his supporters lambasted him on the radio for hugging his ex-vice President, Elvin Santos, who has supported the de facto government since the coup. Zelaya first tried to calm his supporters. Then, after they played back a recording of Santos's words after the meeting, he cried foul and claimed that the whole affair was in bad faith.

Analysts of democratic transitions have long noted that solutions require moderate leaders on both sides to extend their hands to one another and resist the extremists on their flanks. The same logic holds in the current crisis: Micheletti and Zelaya have thus far tried to cater to both camps, and they have failed miserably.

We are now left with the scary prospect of an increasingly volatile situation being handled by two political hacks. Instead of carefully seeking common ground through dialogue, Micheletti and Zelaya bear greater resemblance to bulls in a china shop. And the sad reality is that an entire country suffers as a result--Hondurans now lack the most basic constitutional rights, the economy is tanking, and people here live with the deep anxiety of not knowing whether things might still get worse.