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Con: Obama dug a deep hole in Honduras by trying to save a Chavez wannabe

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Ray Walser
November 21, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should the continued presence of a de facto government in Honduras be considered a serious setback for democracy in Latin America?

In Honduras, Barack Obama’s foreign policy team finally rediscovered the first law of holes: when you find yourself stuck in one, the first thing to do is stop digging.


The U.S. State Department has been busily digging a diplomatic crater since June 28. That’s when the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya from office due to his unconstitutional bid to eliminate term limits.


Rather than side with the democratic institutions of the land, our State Department surprisingly backed Zelaya’s demand for a return to power. For four months, U.S. diplomats bullied and hectored the interim government of Robert Micheletti to return Zelaya to power—despite an August report from the Law Library of Congress that concluded that the Honduran government had every right to depose him.


Despite the pressure, which included suspension of U.S. aid and being dropped from the Organization of American States, defiant Hondurans held their ground, refusing to allow an unrepentant Zelaya to return to executive office. Polarization between pro- and anti-Zelaya factions intensified.


Thankfully, State laid aside its tactics of isolation and punitive sanctions at the end of October. Instead, Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon brokered talks between the factions. On Oct. 30, they produced an eight-point accord that may (repeat, may) end the crisis.


The agreement opens a pathway for Zelaya to return to office temporarily under a variety of restrictions and conditions. Or, maybe not! According to the accord, the Honduran Supreme Court must make recommendations on how to accomplish the reinstatement and then the Congress must approve it. For now, considerable uncertainty prevails.


If the Congress shuts the door on Zelaya’s return, will the accord hold? The Honduran accord highlights elements needed to end the crisis. It calls for creating a government of national unity, a truth commission and a verification team that would include former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.


It also calls for the international community to support fully the Nov. 29 presidential election. It seeks to end the economic sanctions and visa denials that have hurt U.S. and Honduran businesses and trade and made a poor country even poorer.


It also gives hope that the United States will stop alienating its many Honduran friends who feel that expelling Zelaya, a Hugo Chavez wannabee, was not only warranted but necessary to save their constitution.


Sadly, Honduras suffers an excess of outside players eager to score cheap points. Venezuela’s Chavez wants Honduras to remain a festering political sore—making it all the easier for Zelaya to move the unsettled nation into Latin America’s anti-U.S. camp. Word on the Honduran street is that “stimulus” money from Chavez is chasing congressional pockets. A vote for Zelaya’s return could be quite lucrative.


The OAS, under Secretary-General Miguel Insulza, aims to show it has the multilateral muscle to put even errant presidents back into power. (Yet, to the chagrin of genuine democracy lovers, the OAS dithers when a Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or a Chavez in Venezuela guts democratic practices, discards constitutional guarantees and consolidates power.)


As for the United States, the administration wants to shift its focus to the Nov. 29 elections. It appears to be banking on Zelaya’s return to office but wants Hondurans to take ownership of the issues.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the accord as a triumph of “negotiation and dialogue” and promised to back the coming elections.


But what happens if the Honduran Congress balks and Zelaya cries foul? Will the administration reverse course and ignore the electoral results?


The ball is plainly in Honduras’ court. A deal has been signed. There is no room for backsliding by Micheletti or Zelaya—or by the White House and State Department for that matter.


For the moment, hold the applause.


Ray Walser is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to him in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.

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