The stakes for the United States in the Honduran political crisis are higher than ever. At the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the unprecedented overturning of a coup through dialogue. That assessment has now proved naïve, and the State Department finds itself in the awkward position of distancing itself from the rest of Latin America after saying it would recognize the Honduran elections whether or not Manuel Zelaya is restored to power. This crisis is an extremely important moment for Honduras, but it also now has the potential to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to mend the United States’ relationship with Latin America.
Since President Obama took office, his administration has worked hard to heal the wounds left by President George W. Bush in Latin America. Obama’s most symbolic moves came with respect to Cuba, as he condoned the island nation’s re-admission into the Organization of American States (OAS)—long a rallying cry of the OAS’s other members—and eased the terms of the embargo. Obama has also toned down the rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, cutting away at Hugo Chávez’ platform for America-bashing. Whereas President Bush seemed to court confrontation in the region, the Obama administration has thus far sought compromise and consensus. These efforts have not radically altered U.S. policy, but they have represented significant first steps toward repairing relations with Latin America.
Before last week, the United States had also marched in step with the rest of the Americas in its response to Honduras’ June 28th coup. The United States supported the OAS’s denunciation of the coup, suspended aid to Honduras and visas to leaders of the de facto regime and continually demanded the restitution of President Manuel Zelaya. Until late October, the U.S. assiduously avoided taking the lead on the Honduras issue, instead abiding by regional consensus and making sure not to stoke the flames with Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) nations. State Department representative Thomas Shannon’s deal-making visit to Honduras also built directly on the work of the OAS and Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, assuring that the fleeting victory was shared by all partners.
This isn’t another confirm Tom Shannon as Ambassador to Brazil or confirm Arturo Valenzuela as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs essay—though I support both of those positions, and understand that things may be moving. This is an expression of wonder at the inability of the U.S. government to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to Latin America policy.
Let me be clear. I’m not one of those persistent whiners who always complain about the lack of attention paid to Latin America. The last administration of George W. Bush paid plenty of attention to the region, traveling there more frequently and receiving more Latin American heads of state in the White House than any past president, and launching a series of serious initiatives for the region: the free trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia, the Merida Initiative with Mexico, and a series of genuinely exciting efforts with Brazil, Uruguay and Chile—starting with, but not limited to, trade.
Sad thing is, despite a time during the campaign when it seemed that all a potential President Obama needed to do was show up to be more effective, his administration is at real risk of losing the gains of the last eight years.
I never thought I’d say that.
Last week, Honduras’s World Cup qualification left the country glowing with optimism. Now, irrepressible hope and joy have again given way to a grimmer reality: political negotiations have hit a wall.
After finding agreement on the first seven of eight points on the agenda, the Guaymuras Dialogue negotiators have reached a predictable impasse on the most contentious point: Manuel Zelaya’s restitution. Since Friday, the two teams have been sending proposals and counter-proposals back and forth. Zelaya’s side has called for the Congress as adjudicator, while Roberto Micheletti’s side has insisted that the Supreme Court settle the issue. Now, the Micheletti negotiators have proposed getting reports from both branches of government before settling the issue, which Zelaya’s team has rejected.
Zelaya’s negotiators have now accused the other side of obstructionism, and they’re right. On first glance, it seems reasonable to ask the Supreme Court to settle a clearly constitutional issue. But, as Victor Meza expressed, the judiciary has already offered its judgment—since the coup, the Supreme Court has sided with the “constitutional succession” version of the story, supported Micheletti’s government, and roundly condemned Zelaya at every turn. Thus, appealing to the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter at this point would be akin to double jeopardy—with the same case and the same jury, could anyone really expect a different result?
Interestingly, it’s not clear that Zelaya’s proposal would get him the result he wants. Since the coup, the Congress has also consistently sided with Micheletti. In addition, leading members of Congress have suggested that they would have to defer to the Supreme Court on constitutional issues. So a favorable finding for Zelaya—who has already given up the possibility of amnesty—is no foregone conclusion. That said, Zelaya seems to be banking on congressional representatives’ greater stake in internationally recognized elections, even if it means accepting Zelaya’s brief return to power.
Howie Mandel wasn’t there, but he may as well have been as yesterday the small group of dedicated Latin Americanists waited to hear if the negotiations had been successful in resolving the crisis in Honduras. The morning opened up with news that the negotiators were optimistic and that they were 90 percent there. Then came the news from the Commander of the Army, General Romeo Vásquez, that a deal to resolve the impasse was close at hand. Then the news! A deal had been struck. Then the downer. No deal, said de facto President Roberto Micheletti.
In the statement he warned the national and international media “to be cautious in their reporting about the negotiations as they have a responsibility not to interfere with the dialogue.” Before that, Micheletti clearly left his options open: “Today, the negotiating teams began discussing the most difficult issue in the negotiations—the possible reinstatement or not of former President Zelaya within the rule of law and in line with our Constitution.” (Which by the way was broken when the military sent him packing out of the country on June 28, but I guess that doesn’t matter.)
We probably all should have taken the optimism with a grain of salt. In large part because by their own admission the negotiators were saying that they had resolved everything except the status of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Saying that you’re 90 percent there but having not resolved the critical and most polarizing issue of the crisis is akin to saying you’ve solved global warming except that messiness about countries controlling carbon emissions. You can’t get a resolution without it, and yet it’s the major sticking point.
Fame, even political fame, seems to depend more and more on your ability to grab the public fascination—even if it’s lack of respect—than any real attributes. Just the mere aura of media attention confers importance, talent and relevance now-a-days. Just ask the vacuous Paris Hilton, or the duly-elected president of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, whose latest tactics indicate that more than resolving the constitutional crisis in a serious manner, he’d prefer to just be in the news. For whatever. Just today (Monday, September 21) Zelaya appeared suddenly in the Brazilian embassy claiming he had crossed mountains, rivers and the military-manned border to re-appear in Honduras to defy the government’s arrest order. And then he gave a friendly wave to supporters from the Brazilian embassy.
This isn’t helpful.
Sure the man was deposed in a coup. (Just a quick side note: as Mary O’Grady wrote in today’s Wall Street Journal, the Honduran constitution does allow for the Supreme Court to try a president and issue a warrant. What it clearly does not say is that it gives them the power to bundle him up and take him out of the country. It also implies that the trial would be transparent and under due process—neither of which was true in the rushed, closed-door “hearing” that was held preceding President Zelaya’s jammy-clad plane trip into exile. The U.S. constitution allows for an impeachment process; but once it has been completed and a president found guilty, it doesn’t allow for him to be sent into exile—most would agree that to be beyond the constitutional order.)
But his antics: first circling over the airport in a Venezuelan government plane, then the hokey pokey at the Nicaraguan/Honduras border, and now this demonstrate a craven need to keep himself in the public eye and to remind the world of his martyrdom, and, in some twisted way, even present himself as a credible politician.