HAVANA TIMES, Nov 30 (IPS) – On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Washington, DC’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, about 50 protestors lined up outside a polling station where voting was taking place to help select the next leader of a country almost 3,000 kilometers away.
Monday, in Foggy Bottom, the controversial U.S. policy of recognizing the results of the Honduran elections remained unchanged.
“We recognize that there are results in Honduras for this election…We recognize those results,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela told reporters Monday.
“The U.S. takes note of the elections…we see that [National Party candidate Profirio Lobo Sosa] is the winner. We commend him on that. He will be the next president,” said Valenzuela.
Sunday, the mix of white and Latino protestors held signs in English and Spanish at the Washington poll for Honduran registered voters living here, denouncing the “massive repression” on the ground in Honduras – conditions, they felt, that made free and fair elections impossible. Some protestors donned fatigues and fake rifles; others had tape across their mouths.
On the unseasonably warm afternoon, church and brunch goers stopped on the sunny sidewalk to ask questions. Around 2 p.m., a man came out from the polling station and asked that the stairs leading inside be left clear. The protestors moved under the trees of the traffic island across the street. Some dispersed.
On an oak tree halfway down the block, a campaign poster for presidential frontrunner – and eventual winner – Lobo had been tacked up.
Polling stations for absentee voters had been set up in several other U.S. cities – Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and New Orleans – and protests took place in at least four of these.
These peaceful protests contrasted with reports issued throughout the weekend by rights groups in Honduras. While Sunday was reportedly relatively calm, the days and weeks leading up to the election had made many question how legitimate elections held could be held.
“From the reports that I’ve seen the elections were peaceful, but you have to look at the pre-election conditions. Ultimately that is what determines whether the elections are free and fair,” said Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America.
Many other groups and governments also saw legitimate elections as impossible under the interim government that took over following the June coup against President Manuel Zelaya.
“Voting in Honduras is taking place in an atmosphere of fear and repression,” said Hondurans for Democracy, which organized the U.S. protests. They cited the confinement of Zelaya to the Brazilian Embassy and abuses of human rights and freedoms of the press.
But the U.S. position has been, as was reiterated by Valenzuela Monday, that “the elections [are] a necessary step forward û but not a sufficient one”.
The U.S. decision has also been criticized as lending legitimacy to a regime that came to power through a coup. Asked if the U.S.’s recognizing the results runs the risk of encouraging further coups, Valenzuela said no.
A country “in which a military coup takes place [runs] the risk of actually being suspended from the Organization of American States, of not being recognized by the Organization of American States,” he said.
The OAS – along with the U.N., the EU, Brazil and the majority of regional governments – has refused to recognize the elections.
Peru, Panama and Colombia, however, have joined the U.S. in recognizing them.
In one of the few incidents Sunday, marchers in the city of San Pedro Sula were subjected to tear gas and water cannons, according to reports.
But the human rights record of the interim regime had been called into question repeatedly leading up to the elections.
Amnesty International reported Monday that it was trying to follow the situations of several people arrested under suspicious circumstances over the weekend. Amnesty also said a local human rights group had discovered 14 minors detained in a police station in Tegucigalpa after they had been “chatting in small groups on street corners near polling stations”.
According to the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), at least nine protestors have been killed since June and 12 individuals opposing the coup have been killed in incidents that were isolated but had “common characteristics”.
There have also been reports that press freedoms have been impeded. CEJIL said Sunday that the broadcasts of radio and television stations critical of the coup “suffered constant interruptions”. One of them, Canal 36, did not broadcast at all after a week of repeated interference with its signal.
“Basic conditions do not exist for free, fair and transparent elections in Honduras. A cloud of intimidation and restrictions on assembly and free speech affect the climate in which these elections take place,” said WOLA in a statement preceding the elections.
Most governments and organizations seem to agree. The U.N., EU and Carter Center all refused to send observers to Sunday’s elections.
The U.S., meanwhile, has come under fire from Brazil and others for its decision to recognize the results.
Post-election, though, the debate turns to what the U.S. might do to reestablish a democracy in Honduras that the international community can recognize.
“These elections provide the Honduran people a way out,” said Valenzuela.
According to the accord partially brokered by U.S. officials at the end of last month, the Honduran Congress will vote Wednesday on whether Zelaya should be returned to power to finish out his term. Lobo will take over Jan. 27.
Asked what action the U.S. would take if Congress does not vote nor does not vote Zelaya back into the presidency, Valenzuela said he does not want to speculate on hypotheticals but urges them to vote, as per the accord.
“The issue is not who is going to be the next president û that’s been decided û the issue is whether the legitimate president who was elected will be returned to power” prior to the end of his term, he said.
The bigger issue for the U.S., according to Gass, is how to reestablish credibility in the hemisphere.
To do this, she says, “The U.S. should not move unilaterally to dismantle sanctions against Honduras… Before that, there needs to be a restoration of human and political rights. And, secondly, come Jan. 27, president-elect Lobo needs to promote a national dialogue that will include political inclusion.”
The question, Gass says, is whether “the U.S. is going to move toward acting multilaterally or are they going to revert to the Bush-era strategy of act unilaterally”.