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Analysis: As conservatives win power in Honduras, coup precedent sets in

The recognition of new elections could make future leaders cautious about implementing unpopular reforms.

An election worker shows a ballot during a count at a polling station in Tegucigalpa, Nov. 29, 2009. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Amid a bouncing rhythm, the blue-shirted militants of the Honduran National Party jumped in celebration at their candidate's presidential victory and chanted the name of their country: “Honduras, Honduras.”

The young conservatives hope the triumph of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, the timber magnate who won Sunday’s race with a 17-point lead, not only signals the return of the right but also the end of international isolation for Honduras.

This Central American nation has been condemned as a pariah state since soldiers flew the last elected president, Manuel Zelaya, out of the country at gunpoint in June.

“We are leaving our differences aside, and moving forward for Honduras,” the 61-year-old Lobo told the cheering crowd, with his trade mark ear-to-ear grin.

The United States was quick to commend the election as peaceful and successful, indicating the wish for these conservatives may well come true.

In a news release, the State Department called the race “a necessary and important step forward.”

But many in Latin America fear that the failure to restore the leftist Zelaya to power or to punish those behind the coup will lead to an ominous precedent in the region.

With the historical record of Honduras, other leaders could well be cautious about implementing reforms that upset powerful business interests or the military, fearing they too may be marched out of bed by soldiers.

Critics were particularly disappointed with how the Obama administration handled the crisis.
After condemning the coup for four months, the administration swung to a position where it would recognize a new election whether Zelaya returned to power or not.

Such a change reflected a bowing to the pressures of right-wingers both inside the State Department and out, said Laura Carlsen, of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

“The administration lost a chance to show that it had changed from the Cold War past and is backing democracy in Latin America,” Carlsen said. “This is a terrible failure of U.S. policy and is going to have serious implications in the region.”

The alliance of Latin America’s leftist-led nations, including Venezuela and Brazil, still refuses to recognize Sunday’s ballot. An election administered by a de facto government which cracked down on protests and muzzled the media, it argues, cannot be valid.