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.
But the U.S. lead to endorse the vote has been supported by several other Latin American countries including Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.
Also crucially for the Honduran government — which depends on aid for a significant portion of its budget — European powers have softened their stance.
While not yet recognizing the winner of elections, both Germany and Spain refused motions to condemn them.
Inside Honduras, the future for Zelaya, who is holed up in the Brazilian Embassy and surrounded by soldiers since he snuck back in October, looks increasingly tenuous.
The Honduran Congress could still make a surprise decision to re-instate him for the last seven weeks of his mandate — Lobo is due to take power on Jan. 27.
But Brazilian media close to him reported that he is already negotiating exile in Nicaragua in return for immunity from prosecution (the de facto government holds an arrest order for treason).
Meanwhile, key supporters of Zelaya, such as the socialist leader Cesar Ham, ended up joining the race for the new presidency.
And while tens of thousands came out to demonstrate against the coup in July, less than a thousand marched to protest the election on Sunday.
Zelaya says the so-called resistance has become less visible because of repression — police and soldiers shot dead several protesters at demonstrations, have imprisoned hundreds and are accused of assassinating others.
International human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are demanding investigations into these crimes, fearing they may go unpunished as Honduras steps back into the international community.
Lobo promises he will have a government of national conciliation and be open to amnesty for those arrested during the disturbances around the coup.
“We need to put this conflict behind us and reunite the Honduran family,” he said.
While his party has a right-wing line, he said he will have a centrist government and is inspired by the social policies of Brazilan leftist Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.
Asked by GlobalPost at a news conference if he fears that he could be taken down in a coup himself, he momentarily stopped his enduring smile.
“I am not scared of a coup because I will not look for conflict,” he said. “I will work for unity.”