By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- The United States split with some of its Latin American allies Monday over whether to recognize the results of Honduras's presidential election, with Washington commending the balloting but Brazil saying the vote will not erase the stain of a coup.
The winner, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, a conservative businessman, has promised to promote reconciliation in this impoverished country, which was thrown into turmoil when the military exiled President Manuel Zelaya on June 28.
But many Hondurans consider it unlikely that their internationally recognized president will be allowed to serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January. Zelaya's return had been the goal of an aggressive campaign by the U.S. government and the rest of the hemisphere. But Honduran and U.S. officials concede that the Honduran congress is likely to vote Wednesday against reinstating Zelaya, who had alarmed many here by embracing Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chávez.
Lobo is hoping Sunday's election -- scheduled long before Zelaya's ouster -- will help end a crisis that has isolated Honduras internationally and cost it millions of dollars in lost aid and revenue.
"It's difficult not to recognize an electoral process in a democratic country," Lobo said at a news conference with foreign reporters. "This is how the crisis ends."
The exact turnout in Sunday's vote was still not known, with the country's electoral tribunal saying official figures may not be available for weeks. The tribunal said that, based on projections from about half the ballot boxes, 62 percent of eligible voters participated. However, an independent Honduran civic alliance that did a statistical sampling nationwide said 47.6 percent of voters turned out, 7.4 percentage points less than in the last presidential election, in 2005. The civic group's effort was funded by the U.S. government and received technical assistance from the National Democratic Institute, which is loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party.
The International Republican Institute, a group that sent observers and has ties to the Republican Party, said the election was "free of violence and overt acts of intimidation" and appeared credible.
Many major international electoral observation groups declined to monitor the vote, however, citing the country's unresolved political conflict and irregularities during the campaign that included the temporary shutdown of pro-Zelaya media.
The president was not on the ballot, but he appeared to be the big loser in Sunday's election, as many Hondurans ignored his appeal for a mass boycott. He has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy since sneaking back into the country in September.
The military arrested Zelaya on June 28 on charges of abuse of power for allegedly organizing an illegal referendum that many viewed as a bid to stay in power beyond the one-term limit.
Initially, the Obama administration insisted on Zelaya's return, eager to show its democratic credentials to a region long skeptical of them. But Honduran political and business leaders rejected the demand. Seeing few other options, the U.S. government dropped an earlier threat not to recognize the election.
"We stood on principle, but Central America really matters to us. The U.S. can't have a totally destabilized Honduras," one senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In a statement, the State Department commended Hondurans for "peacefully exercising their democratic right to select their leaders."
Colombia, Peru, Panama and Costa Rica have indicated they will recognize the election result. Many other countries have refused to do so thus far, but analysts say Mexico and some Central American and Caribbean nations are likely to reestablish ties eventually.
Regional powerhouse Brazil and several other leftist governments have said that allowing a coup to go unpunished would send the wrong message in a region once dominated by military governments.
"There are still many nations, especially in Central America, in vulnerable political situations," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told an Ibero-American meeting in Portugal, according to wire services.
One of Honduras's most influential businessman, Adolfo Facusse, said in an interview that such opposition does not matter. "We don't care about Brazil," he said, noting its limited trade relationship with Honduras. "We get to Miami in two hours, we get to Brazil in eight."