The National Congress backed off today from an immediate confrontation with President Roberto Suazo Cordova in the face of military support for the president, but Honduran politicians and foreign diplomats warned that the political crisis here had eased only temporarily.
The Congress called off a planned demonstration on behalf of the five men it elected yesterday, against the president's wishes, as new members of the Supreme Court. The legislature met briefly this morning and adjourned until Monday after military police yesterday afternoon arrested the man Congress had named as the court's new president. He was charged with treason.
The armed forces are likely to feel increasing pressure to intervene in the dispute unless the legislature and Suazo Cordova settle their differences, politicians and diplomats said. Such military intervention would harm the U.S. government's interest, reaffirmed today by U.S. Embassy officials, in minimizing the armed forces' role in Honduran politics.
But there were no signs that a military coup was being prepared, and the dispute did not seem likely to affect Honduras' role as a critical U.S. ally in Central America, the sources said.
The armed forces historically have served as the final arbiter in politics here, but sources familiar with the military's position said the officer corps was divided over what role to play. U.S. Embassy sources privately expressed hope that the armed forces would gently encourage the Congress and the president to reach an agreement.
The combination of factional infighting within both the armed forces and the civilian political establishment appeared likely to lead to continued instability in coming weeks and months, politicians and diplomats said.
"The Supreme Court crisis isn't the only issue to be resolved. There are still a lot of cards to be played," a diplomat said.
The root cause of the crisis here is rising opposition among political leaders to what they view as Suazo Cordova's efforts to dominate virtually the entire government apparatus. In particular, two leaders of Suazo Cordova's Liberal Party have broken with him because he opposed their efforts to succeed him as president.
Suazo Cordova is in the final year of a four-year term and cannot succeed himself. He attracted little attention in his first two years in office because Honduran politics at the time was dominated by the armed forces commander at the time, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez. Since Alvarez was ousted in a barracks coup a year ago, however, Suazo Cordova has played an increasingly visible role.
In particular, he has used his considerable influence in the Supreme Court and the Congress to battle political rivals both within his Liberal Party and in the opposition National Party. His supporters dominate the Electoral Tribunal, a government body that rules on intraparty disputes, so his power extends even to internal affairs of opposition parties.
"The problem is in one person, the president of the republic. Everybody says he has managed all three branches of the state," said Celeo Arias, a Liberal Party leader who is opposed to Suazo Cordova and is one of three "presidential designates" or vice presidents.
Resistance to Suazo Cordova boiled over in yesterday's congressional vote. Dissident Liberal factions combined with the opposition parties in voting to dismiss five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court and to name five replacements. Congressional leaders charged that the court repeatedly had broken the law on behalf of friends and associates of Suazo Cordova.
Suazo Cordova said the action was unconstitutional and ordered the military police to arrest the five newly elected justices. One of the men, Ramon Valladares, was detained, and about 25 elite riot policemen carrying automatic rifles were stationed in front of the court and the Congress.
The actions of the military police were a clear signal of support for the president for the time being. But sources familiar with the armed forces' stance emphasized that the military took the steps only to preserve order this week, and that its position might change as the crisis evolved.
Experts differed as to whether the Congress has the legal right to replace Supreme Court justices under the three-year-old constitution.