Honduras’ deposed President Mel Zelaya was here in Washington the week prior to Labor Day urging the United States, without a hint of irony, to re-install him in power as soon as possible. At the same time, he told a late summer audience that as the diplomatic process grinds on without clear prospects for resolution, he was building support for another attempt to re-enter Honduras. His last two attempts having failed, first by air and then by land, his next option would appear to be by sea, a la Fidel’s famous journey in the Granma. At the very least, this would do away with a reprise of the Honduran version of the hokey-pokey (you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out, you put your left foot in and then you shake it all about….), or the Python-esque flying circus aspects of his first attempt in July. On a more serious note, though, during his visit Zelaya also pointedly refused to speculate to the Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan whether or not violence would be a part of his ramped up strategy of return.
Nonetheless, on September 3 the State Department announced the termination of assistance to Honduras and revoked additional visas. Prejudging the November elections, Department spokesman Ian Kelly also said that the United States would not be able to support their outcome, suggesting that they would be illegitimate unless a positive conclusion of the Arias process had already occurred.
Expect things to heat up in Washington once Congress returns after Labor Day. In preparation for Congress’ return, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote in the Los Angeles Times on September 3 that the United States was obligated to declare the June 28 actions a coup, triggering a statutory aid cut-off for all non-humanitarian or democracy aid. There is little doubt in fact that the Administration was already moving in that direction, but the die has now been cast. At the same time, two important hemispheric appointments remain on hold in the Senate (for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and US Ambassador to Brazil) until a thorough vetting of the Honduras crisis occurs. The actions of September 3 could inflame passions on the Hill and delay hemispheric appointments further, at just the time when regional policy most needs steady, nuanced hands on the tiller.
More to the point, many had thought that the best way out of the mess in Honduras would be to get through to the November elections and, assuming they were democratic, transparent, and fully above-board, get a new democratically-elected government in place and move forward, relegating this sorry episode to the past. But now the elections themselves have been pronounced by the State Department to be illegitimate—before they’ve even occurred. That may well prove to be a miscalculation, because delegitimizing the elections delegitimizes democracy, and, assuming the Arias process remains stalemated, gives both Zelaya and Micheletti a continuing role in Honduran presidential politics well beyond the time both should have moved on.
Such actions also create a new, catch-22 standard in US foreign policy and democracy promotion. Henceforth, it would seem, elections cannot be democratic or legitimate unless they occur under a pre-existing democratic franchise. That’s a dramatic change, with dramatic consequences. The logical application of such a standard would ensure that nations like Cuba, for example, cannot have a legitimate, democratic election unless they are already democratic, creating a box for policy makers which will be exceedingly difficult to get out of. It’s not clear anyone thought through the broader application of such a strategy. Declaring elections illegitimate three months before they occur would tend to limit options for the United States, which is not necessarily a winning diplomatic strategy and could well prolong the crisis beyond its natural conclusion, while removing the escape valve otherwise provided by elections that would be held according to the Honduran constitution.