printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

FPC Background Briefing on Honduras

FPC Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
November 20, 2009

2:00 P.M. EST

You all, I think, know [Senior State Department Official]. [Identifying information]. Just so everybody understands what the ground rules are on background is you can quote a Senior State Department Official, but not use his name. Everybody agrees to that? It’s up to you, so --


MODERATOR: We’re all good? (Inaudible.) Okay. So without further ado – we’re kind of short on time. I’m going to let [Senior State Department Official] start and (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right, sure. I’ll make a couple of brief remarks, and I’m sure you have questions. [Identifying information]

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s right. Yes, that’s right. Actually, I’m going to try and get a smartcard for travel to Honduras.

But what we’re trying to do in Honduras – we’re working with other countries in the region – is obviously to restore constitutional democratic order in the country in the wake of the coup of June 28th. And what we’re trying to do is really – it’s sort of a package deal. I mean, it’s not just one thing. We’re working on several elements at once, and again, not by ourselves, but with many other countries in the (inaudible) and the OAS, and most importantly, with the Honduran people themselves.

There are several sort of moving pieces. One is the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord. Another is the elections process in the country. And in our view, these all go together. We – the elections are a very important part of the package, but they’re not the whole package. It’s, we might say, necessary but not sufficient to arrive at the overall sort of national reconciliation that the Honduran people are seeking.

And the reason that we got involved to help mediate and broker the October 30th accord, the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord, was because we felt that in order for the country to move ahead, that the elections were key. And those elections would garner more support, both inside and outside the country, if there were some sort of an internal political agreement. And that’s why we felt that it was important that since the parties wanted it, that we get involved to help do that.

The accord – I think it’s very important to underscore what the accord says and what it does not say, because there have been a lot of – there’s been a lot of, I think, misunderstanding about the accord. The – and of course, all you have to do is read the accord. But the – first of all, there are only a couple of deadlines in the accord. The first – a couple of them are fairly routine. One was the – that the – when the accord would be actually sent to the Honduran congress. That was done right away and that deadline was met.

The second deadline was the formation of the Verification Commission. That was virtually met. The commission couldn’t get there until a day later because of flight schedules, but that one was pretty much on time. The only other deadline in the accord is an important one, and that one has been met, and that was the formation of a national unity government. But --

QUESTION: November 5th, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On November 5th, exactly. And I think that the – that occurred for – that failure to meet that deadline occurred for a couple of reasons. The de facto regime sort of presented to President Zelaya and to other political parties, sort of a summons – it gives names for the formation of a national unity government. President Zelaya was angry that this looked as if Micheletti was trying to “encabezar,” that government, head up that government. And so he became angry and pulled out of the process. So we had an early difficulty with the accord.

But it’s not correct to say that because of that, the accord fell apart. It is true that President Zelaya said I’m not participating now, but the fact is both sides, throughout this whole long ordeal, have pulled away and come back. So we’re not simply accepting that this thing is over, and the perfect proof of that is that the part of the accord which was the most difficult to negotiate, and where we in the OAS had the most active role in closing the deal was Article 5, which calls for the congress to take up the issue of President Zelaya’s restitution. And that is going to be implemented. It’s going to be implemented December 2nd in the Honduran congress.

So to say that the accord is dead, when actually, it is going to comply with the most sensitive element of the accord doesn’t make sense. In other words, the accord is still valid, yes.

QUESTION: And this is going to be implemented, it means it’s going to be discussed between the congress?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s going to be discussed and with the intention of having a vote. And they are saying that this is going to be a live, televised debate with open voting, no secret ballot.

QUESTION: What do you expect?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not going to speculate how it might go.

QUESTION: If Zelaya pulled out of the accord, how come you do still have an accord?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, the – it’s a good question in the sense that how – it takes two to tango, how can you do this without one – but the fact is that there is going to be this vote, and the accord doesn’t say that both sides have to agree to say they’re still on the accord to have that vote. They’re going to have a vote.

QUESTION: And it doesn’t matter that Zelaya is not --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, see, I think it’s too early to just declare that that’s the case. As I say, we have to keep in mind that throughout the negotiations of the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord, there were breakdowns before we got to the end. And anyone who has negotiated an agreement knows that you can’t – the parties pull away at times and this thing is worth fighting for. It’s worth it for the country.

It’s very interesting; when you go to Honduras, this accord is very popular in Honduras. The Honduran people see the accord as a sign that the outside world wants to help them resolve this problem. And so it’s worth continuing to fight for. And again, the fact that the Congress is going to take up this very sensitive issue is – which never would have happened without the accord – it’s important to realize that – this vote would only be taking place – is only taking place because of the accord.

So yes, Zelaya pulling out is obviously a challenge, but on the other hand, you’re going to have a vote on this issue. And we’ve always said that you can’t leap into the future in this issue, because as things happen day by day, you change the dynamic. The statement last night by Micheletti – well, that could change the dynamic as well. So I think that we have to – Charles de Gaulle once said “Don’t insult the future.” In other words, don’t assume what’s going to happen two weeks from now.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) taking a leave of absence of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think it’s a positive step that needs to be implemented, of course. And that, I think, has the potential to open more political space, open more space for the parties to continue that progress.

QUESTION: You think he will return or not?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to speculate on that.

QUESTION: Bad question?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That would be jumping into the future. No, it’s a perfectly good question, but --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Let’s give other people a chance to ask as well.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Aren’t you concerned that the U.S. position to recognize the elections with or without Zelaya could put the country at odds with the rest of the region?


QUESTION: Especially Brazil and a lot – the majority of the countries the region.


QUESTION: Only Panama is with you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Actually, there, too, it’s – I think it’s important to step back and look. What Assistant Secretary Shannon was saying was that you have to consider the context of that interview. At the time of that interview, there was an interpretation of the accord, that the accord said that Zelaya must be reinstituted or the elections are not valid.

Well, the accord never said that. Again, it’s important to read the accord. The accord says that that issue goes to the congress for a decision. It never says that the viability of the elections relies on Zelaya’s reinstitution. That’s exactly what the parties could not agree to, which is why they passed it to the congress. So the – so Tom was pushing back on that interpretation and saying that the accord opens up the space for the country to move toward elections with greater international support.

If I can go just off the record for a minute.

[Off-the-record conversation]

What we’re saying is that we think the Honduran people have a right to exercise their democratic vote to have an election. There will be a lot of people there on the ground observing that election, and we’ll make a judgment about the election when it – after it occurs, not beforehand.

QUESTION: How do they make change out of pace compared to the rest of the region? How do you explain the U.S. position?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not going to worry so much about where other countries are at the moment. What I want to do is explain what our position is. And our position again is that the Honduran people have a right to have an election. Elections are going to happen. Nobody is going to stop them from having an election by saying these elections aren’t legitimate because Zelaya isn’t back. That’s just not going to – the election is going to happen. We will make a judgment on that when it does happen. But our position is that what we’re trying to help achieve in Honduras is broader than just the election. It’s the overall healing and national reconciliation of the country. And the election is an important part of that, and we think elections are an essential part of that overall context.

Again, I wouldn’t leap to conclusions about where other countries will be on November 29th. I can’t guess that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Hold on real quick. We’re not – wait, we can’t all talk at once because then we can’t understand. Can you hold on a second?

QUESTION: How about (inaudible) country in – who were at the OAS (inaudible) by last week. And everybody there –


QUESTION: -- were saying – they were saying we are not going to recognize the elections if Zelaya is not in power. It’s not speculation. That’s --

QUESTION: Yesterday (inaudible).

QUESTION: They are saying that – everybody.


QUESTION: But wait, what are they going to do with that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, citing a couple of countries, we’ve got 34 countries in the OAS. I doubt if you have a headcount that shows that 33 are not going to. But anyway, I don’t want to get into – what I’m saying is that let’s wait and see what happens. We are making our position clear about how we view the elections. What other countries do is up to them. We think that it’s very important to try to combine a couple of important goals, and one is to make a clear statement about what happened on June 28th. It was a coup, and it’s important to restore democratic and constitutional order. We have expressed concerns about human rights abuses under the de facto regime and will continue to do so. Those principles are very important. But it’s also important to help work for a way forward in the country. It’s very easy to sit back and criticize. It’s a lot harder to come up with approaches that actually help the Honduran people move forward in a way that recognizes these principles.

And so – and we’re trying to do the latter. We’re actually – we’ve rolled up our sleeves and are working in the country to try to help them move forward, recognizing the principles. We were maybe the first, if not among the first, on that Sunday morning to say this was a coup. I know [identifying information] several of us were in the office Sunday morning and we got in touch with the Secretary and we said we need to declare this as a coup right now, right away, because there can be no ambiguity. This was an unlawful interruption of power.

And – but then where do you go from there? Because diplomacy is a lot more about just announcing; it’s also about helping achieve something real on the ground. And that’s what we’re trying to do – recognizing the principles, but actually helping. So, I mean, our policy takes into account the actions that have to be undertaken to help this country move forward.

QUESTION: Okay. But taking in account all the things that have happened since the coup, Honduras seems to be some sort of a political laboratory. And let me explain the (inaudible) --


QUESTION: -- why. I mean, we have a situation where the constitutional order was broken, the democratically elected president was asked out of power, sent out of the country. And nevertheless, now we have a situation where the people responsible for that violation of the Honduras constitution is still in power, you have a president holing up in a foreign embassy in Tegucigalpa. And it seems to be that this may be, you know, some sort of a map or blueprint for people who in the future may be thinking about, you know, do something like this, you know, that – oh, well, you know, we can, you know, (inaudible) this guy, then we come to elections and nothing is going to happen.

So, I mean, at some point, are you afraid that this may set a bad precedent in a continent that is struggling to – came up out of decades of political coups?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right, right. No, I mean, absolutely, it’s very important to send the signal that coups should be part of the past and not part of the present and future in our region or anywhere in the world. That’s absolutely right. And in fact, it’s – when – you’re correct to also cite this proximity between a coup and an election.

See, when you look historically about coups in Latin America and the Caribbean, they often did occur close to elections for various reasons. One is that people thought the election was not going to go the way they liked, so they overthrew the other side, so, no. And that’s why I say the principle – it is absolutely critical to underscore the principle. And whatever the outcome is in Honduras, it’s very important that we all send the signal that this is not an acceptable way to change government. So we’ve been very, very clear about that from the very beginning of this, from the very – that very Sunday morning after this occurred.

But again, I want to go back to the other – we also, I think, as neighbors in this hemisphere, have the obligation to help this country get out of this situation. Because what are we going to do, sit for four years and just condemn the coup? Or are we going to help not only underscore the principle that you talk about very correctly, but also, this is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere; how do we help them move forward? And I think those who make criticism also have the responsibility to come up with constructive ideas to help move forward, because it’s very easy to criticize. After all, no one agrees with the coup. So it’s not a very original position to just say this was – everybody agrees it was a coup. There’s not one country in the world that supports what was done on the 28th.

But the harder question is: How do we move forward – underscoring our principles, but also finding a way forward? And that’s why, in our view, we say it’s – this is a package of steps to reassert the principle and also help the country move forward, in part, through elections. Now, what is important about the accord and why I think it’s very important to not accept a unilateral withdrawal from it is that there are parts of the accord which are going to be implemented in the future which are critical. That’s the truth commission. We’ve seen in other countries which have had political turmoil that a truth commission can be a very, very important way to move forward and yet open up the past.

[identifying information], and I knew Ricardo Lagos quite well, and he used to say when he talked about the Pinochet period that Chile always has to move forward, but we can’t forget the past. And he used to always say ‘no hay mañana sin ayer’ and that’s a very nice phrase. But the mañana is also important. You do have to move forward. And so doing both at the same time is really what we’re trying to do – assert the principle, but help the country move forward.

QUESTION: Speaking of moving forward, did you try to convince President Zelaya to rejoin the agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have urged both sides to keep at it in the agreement, absolutely.


QUESTION: He’s now saying he would like the elections to be postponed. What do you think about that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this is really a question that has to be posed to the Hondurans because it’s a – but it’s complicated under Honduran law. As I understand it, the congress would actually have to come to convene to do that. So I think that’s a complicated thing, but that – the – when you’re in Honduras, you get a very strong sense that the people want to vote and they want to move forward and put this period behind them. But this – and the elections clearly are – they’re a week from Sunday. So –

QUESTION: (Inaudible)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, I mean, it’s not for the United States to determine that. But I think if you look at what’s happening in the country, it’s pretty clear that they’re moving toward an election a week from Sunday.

QUESTION: Regarding neighbors, I mean, are you starting a B plan – the fact that we might have elections? And then the day after, nobody except you in and Panama and maybe another country recognize the results? Are you already in touch with the OAS partners to try to – I mean, what are you doing regarding them? Because it’s going to be a real complicated situation if (inaudible) --


QUESTION: -- recognize the results.

QUESTION: Jumping in the question --


QUESTION: -- do you have a plan for the day after the election? What are you going to do November the 3rd?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, we always have plans. That’s what we were – (laughter) --

QUESTION: (Inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. It was General Eisenhower who once said that all plans are worthless, but planning is essential. So that – we do a lot of that at the State Department. (Laughter.) But the – no, first of all, we’re in constant touch with the neighbors in the region – not only at the OAS, which will be convening on Monday to talk about this issue, apparently what they’re calling an informal session – but we’re on the phone and talking to people constantly.

QUESTION: Including Venezuela?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We talk to – sure, yeah, an ambassador of Venezuela – we talk to everybody. And so the – I don’t want to prejudge where our countries are going to be, and that’s not for us to determine that anyway. But we certainly will try to do this in as cooperative and friendly way as we can talk about the Honduras situation. We talk about it all the time.

QUESTION: What has been their reaction? How would you qualify the reaction of the countries (inaudible) like Brazil?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, I don’t want to get into head counts, but there are a lot of countries that realize that elections must be part of the way forward. Again, it’s not – no one’s saying elections are the cure-all. We’re certainly not saying that. But there are a lot of people who realize that elections must be part of the package.

QUESTION: So what about the perception from abroad that basically the Administration just caved in because of political pressure from, you know, the Republican Party here, to recognize election is – basically, it seems as if you were comfortable with the status quo at this moment.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I actually have a simple answer to that question: It’s absolutely wrong. We have not – we never changed the policy. We always felt that elections were going to be – they needed to be part of the overall solution.

Now, people sometimes compare statements made a month – three months ago to now, but again, this situation evolved. What has happened, which is in many ways a good thing, is that a problem which was very international at the beginning – on July 4th, the OAS met and suspended Tegucigalpa’s membership. Then you had the San Jose Accord. Then you had the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord.

What was happening throughout this process, if you step back and look at it, is what the solution was becoming at each step more and more – Honduran. That’s actually a good thing; that Hondurans are trying to resolve their own political problem, with the help of friends in the region. And we’re proud to be one of those. But it’s actually a positive sign that they’re wrestling with these issues.

And in some ways, I think it’s a little bit naïve to express shock that the agreement would run into problems in such a polarized environment. Where else in the world where there is a political dispute, whether it’s Northern Ireland or the Middle East, do you not have problems in trying to implement agreements? You always do. And so we’re not surprised by this, and we’re determined to keep working on it.

QUESTION: Are you happy with this the status quo at the moment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nobody’s happy. I don’t talk about happiness here. We’re talking about determination to move forward.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Satisfaction --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, determined is the word. We are determined to keep moving forward, and – and as I say, I think it is important to have a – to pay attention to the facts that are occurring. Things have happened on the ground. There is a Verification Commission supporting this process. There is going to be a congressional vote. You – Honduras is going to have elections. There will be a truth commission set up. And the international community is trying to help this country get out of this situation.

And again, if you look at per capita GDP in the region, Honduras is about at $1,300 per capita. It’s one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Something else we have to keep – we all want to get to a point where we can help this country get back to an agenda of greater social justice, social inclusion, engagement with the rest of the region and its economy. It’s important for the region, because a lot of goods in Central America go through Honduran ports to go the United States and Europe and so forth. That’s why the Central Americans are some of the ones that are strongest in trying to move the country forward.

QUESTION: I want another question about this. Because if you follow a process – and I was following with all the meetings in the (inaudible), everybody was expecting Zelaya to come before elections, and now we are not seeing Zelaya coming before elections. We are seeing maybe coming after the 2nd of December. But no people understand, and it’s very unclear, and I want to know if the U.S. is involved in some way on this – is that Micheletti left in this moment, the government, and he said he’s going to come back the 2nd.

QUESTION: No, on Wednesday. He leaves on Wednesday.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) leaving on the 2nd --

QUESTION: But he says he will be coming back.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He’s talking about coming back December 2nd.

QUESTION: Well, the 2nd of – and Zelaya says that this is a trick. So that’s – what’s the U.S. position? This is not something that was – expected that Micheletti was going to leave the office.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The selection of the December 2nd date – I mean, it is the date of the congressional decision. Again, keep in mind, this is a step-by-step process. Honduras will be a different place after the election. It will be a different place after the December 2nd vote. So I – our policy is based on helping to prepare each step to move the country forward. To try to predict what will happen after December 2nd is hard because the conditions will be different.

QUESTION: So this was a step?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a step. And so we’ll see what happens. And again, I don’t want to insult the future by saying what happens with respect to that end date that Micheletti gave last night.

MODERATOR: This will be the last question.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have a question on the national election process, actually. Based on what you saw on the ground and from your ambassador there, are you confident that the elections will be fair and free and transparent? And another thing is that the OAS won’t send a mission there. I know that you have to send from a technical point of view.


QUESTION: But is there somebody there, an international organism or something that can actually certify that there will be no fraud?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right, right. There will be a lot of international observers. The question of institutional presence is not set yet. I think we’d have to wait to see what happens in coming days in the wake of this announcement by Micheletti and so forth. But there are a lot of people coming into the country to observe elections. And again, I’m not --

QUESTION: On behalf of whom?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re not going to try to prejudge. Sorry?

QUESTION: On behalf of whom are they coming in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it depends. I mean, some are coming on – some countries are sending people, some individuals. The best place to go to get that answer is the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Honduras which is running the elections. It’s also important to recognize that the Micheletti regime is not running the election. Under Honduran law, the elections are run by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, a body which predates the coup, which is nonpartisan. These people were not appointed by Micheletti. They existed beforehand. And the candidates were all nominated before the coup. So Micheletti is not running the election.

QUESTION: And to follow up --

MODERATOR: No more questions.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, it’s real quick. It’s just – I didn’t get the answer. What are you going to do if no one recognizes the election?

QUESTION: And let me jump on that, because – (laughter) – no, no, because – no, because in some way, my question is related to that. Because if no one – I mean, if a majority of countries in the hemisphere doesn’t recognize the election, naturally, it will complicate the effort to take Honduras back to the OAS. And my question is: Do you have a plan B for that scenario?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, you know that we never answer hypotheticals. That’s not – I’m not going to get into “what will happen if” in nine days. Let’s take it one step at a time. With each thing that happens in Honduras, the situation changes. We’re trying to take advantage of each step to move forward.

It’s not just diplomatic prudence that keeps me from trying to do that. It’s the fact that if you try to speculate about 10 days from now, you actually change the present because this is such a polarized, sensitive environment. So it doesn’t do anybody any good for us to do that. That’s – it’s not a cop out. It actually is a rare, very realistic effort on our part to take this thing step (inaudible).

QUESTION: On human rights, how do you see the situation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve denounced several times the abuses that occur. There was a decree that the regime put in place which was lifted in part because of strong international protests. But there still are – we still do get reports. We have said repeatedly to the regime that they are to be held accountable for the actions that violate abuses. And I was in Honduras two days ago and I made a public statement calling on the regime to respect human rights, and also calling on all sides to refrain from provocation of violence. This is very important.

So, I think I need to – thank you very much
# # #