Even in the best of times, under Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congresses alike, Washington’s appetite for things Latin American is limited. On occasion, a crisis breaks through the public consciousness and attracts top-level attention for a period of time, but the ability to sustain a policy that does more than just lurch from crisis to crisis really doesn’t exist. When such crisis does occur, however, Washington becomes fixated on the issue and almost completely neglects other issues in the hemisphere.
Such is the case right now. Since June 28, Washington’s primary focus on the region has been on Honduras. Even the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador-designate for Brazil, Tom Shannon, has been held up by the Senate over dissatisfaction of U.S. policy actions to sanction the government of de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti. The Senate hold on Tom Shannon, a highly-regarded career diplomat who has served both Democratic and Republican administrations with distinction, was placed back in the summer, even before the September 3 State Department announcement that pre-emptively sought to delegitimize Honduras’ scheduled November 29 elections. Since then, Washington has become even more polarized, so it’s unclear why a hold that was placed before the September 3 announcement would be lifted after the announcement without some compromise on the issues. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Tom for over 15 years and worked with him in the White House, and I consider him to be a personal friend.)
But the practical implications of this stalemate mean that the United States has no ambassador in the largest Latin American country, and may not for some time—even though the issues surrounding Brazil’s emergence on the global scene are compelling—all because we continue to wrap ourselves around the axle on Honduras. It’s all so depressingly familiar, particularly for those who went through the 1980s. In fact, some of the Washington players are exactly the same ones who were involved in the 1980s disputes, from both sides. But 2009 is not 1982; and the shape of the hemisphere has changed dramatically. The longer we focus on Honduras, the longer we unilaterally decrease our footprint even further in the rest of Latin America, creating even more of a vacuum for others to fill.
Who wins with such a scenario? Well, Venezuela, for one. Aggressive efforts by the government of President Hugo Chávez to export the Bolivarian Revolution continue, and contacts with Iran as highlighted by U.S. District Attorney Robert Morganthau, myself and others, have ramped up. Chávez may “lose” Honduras, though that remains to be seen, but tactical defeat may well contribute to strategic victory—it’s in his interest to keep the situation as scrambled and confused as possible, for as long as possible. To the extent we are focused on Honduras, we are even less focused on the broader mischief that may be occurring in the hemisphere. At the same time, China continues its inexorable efforts to build relations in the hemisphere, and with the global economy perhaps on the way to recovery, those efforts will surely increase. And Brazil, looking as always to expand its own influence in South America, which it defines as keeping the United States out of the region to the extent possible and building Brazil-led institutions such as the Union of South Americans Nations (UNASUR) and the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), will also benefit. Unless we are proactive about it, the slow retreat of U.S. influence in the region will become a rush.
That’s why concluding the Honduras crisis as soon as possible and moving on is of paramount importance to broader U.S. interests in the region. The elections of November 29 offer us this chance: a clear cut, democratic, definitive way out of the mess. Even if the crisis goes to that point, and it probably will, free and fair elections will close this sorry chapter and allow all parties to press the reset button—para reajustarse—and to move on. Unless, of course, the elections are delegitimized before they even occur, at which point the crisis continues indefinitely, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya maintains a profile in Honduran politics that goes well beyond its natural end, Gulliver remains tied down and unable to focus on other hemispheric priorities, and our hemispheric detractors laugh all the way to the bank as they busily promote their own interests to our detriment. By stating that we won’t support the elections unless Zelaya is back in the country—and that’s more than being holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa where he is now—we’ve played into the hands of those who are agitating for the crisis to go beyond November 29.
I know, it’s not fashionable since the end of the Cold War to talk about U.S. strategic interests, especially in Latin America. We fancy ourselves to have matured in the region by moving beyond such crude discussions. We would much prefer to focus on other things. But, our refusal to look at the hemisphere strategically is having long-term consequences. We are in a chess game of several dimensions that we don’t even know we are playing. Honduras may just be the start.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.