Obama’s Honduras Problem: Obama’s First Political Crisis in Latin America Dampens a New Hope for Diplomatic Change in the Region

Published by Campus Progress
December 15, 2009

Supporters of ousted Honduras’ President Manuel Zelaya shout slogans during a protest near Congress while lawmakers debate whether to reinstate him in Tegucigalpa, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009.

After a long history of the United States support for oppressive oligarchies in Latin America, some, though certainly not all, recent presidents have moved in the direction of supporting democratic outcomes there. Advocates of this change were optimistic about the Obama administration. In May 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama outlined a comprehensive Latin American policy. “The situation has changed in the Americas, but we’ve failed to change with it,” he said in a speech before the Cuban American National Federation. But lately, the White House’s maneuvering in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in response to the recent political crisis in Honduras, has only fueled doubt that the nation would change its ways.

At first, there was promise that Obama would make the kind of changes he suggested. In April, he lifted travel restrictions baring Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland, in the theory that greater engagement with Cuban society, rather than isolation, would help advance freedom in Cuba. There was no clear interference from Washington in the Bolivian and Salvadorian elections held this year, when leftist candidates were elected. Obama also shook hands with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas this spring, a symbolic photo that circulated across the globe. Chavez has not always respected democratic freedoms, but, taken together, Obama’s actions gave hope that the days of coups and threatened coups against elected leaders were in the past.

But even then, many knew changing such policies would be an uphill battle. Reversing years of failed diplomacy that backed military juntas over democratically-elected governments isn’t an easy task, says Maureen Meyer, an associate with the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.

“Even if you have a new government with different policies it isn’t that easy to change quickly,” Meyers says, citing federal bureaucracy in agencies like the State Department. “You have the difficulty of moving a very large structure that has been in place [for decades].”

The first test for the Obama administration in Latin American began with an unexpected coup in Honduras on June 28. Democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from the presidential palace in the capital of Tegucigalpa at gunpoint during the night and flown to Costa Rica in exile. The country’s oligarchy, which had opposed Zelaya’s reforms to assist the poorer citizens who make up the majority of the country, conspired with the president’s opponents in the country’s supreme court and national congress to successfully overthrow Zelaya with the help of the military.

For many Latin Americans the coup hit close to home. Right-wing groups have a history of routinely overthrowing democratic governments and torturing citizens in the region, usually with support from the United States. But this time, the U.S. president publicly condemned the coup. “We do not want to go back to a dark past …we will always stand with democracy,” Obama said in a speech the next day.

The Obama administration’s policy on the Honduran coup started out “being mixed and often indecisive, but doing the right thing in many cases,” says Mark Engler, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a Washington, D.C., policy organization that studies international conflicts.

The White House ended joint military activities in Honduras, revoked U.S. visas of coup leaders, and canceled $30 million in aid. But as the crisis continued, the contradictions began. Mixed signals came from the State Department. When President Zelaya attempted to return to his country in July through the Nicaraguan border, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called his actions “reckless.”

Eventually Zelaya found a way back into his country in September, where he ended up trapped inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for fear of retaliation from the coup government. The State Department assisted in brokering a peace accord to create a reconciliation government in hopes that Zelaya would return to power before the November presidential elections, but the de facto government did not honor it. After the accord fell apart, the department did nothing.

“I think this is one of the most, if not the most, disappointing moments of the Obama administration so far,” Engler says, claiming that White House posturing on the failed agreement ending up as “a totally counterproductive, disastrous policy that gave credence and comfort to coup leaders.”

A wealthy minority of Honduran coup supporters spent $210,000 as of October to hire Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former presidential campaign operative and Beltway lobbyist Lanny Davis, according to public lobbying disclosures. Davis was hired to defend the illegitimate government in Congress after the coup. Meanwhile, in Honduras, the de facto regime was found to be using brutal military repression and media censorship to quell public protests against the coup.

Conservative U.S. lawmakers were also flown down to the country in October for a “fact finding mission,” planned by supporters of the new illegitimate government. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the lawmakers who traveled to Honduras, blocked the confirmation of two State Department appointees in the Senate: Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs, and Thomas Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil. DeMint wanted a guarantee that the United States would recognize the results of the November elections (scheduled before the coup ever happened), even though Zelaya wasn’t returned to power before voting began.

In the end, the Honduran elections were a farce. The military deployed an intimidating presence at most voting sites. Voters in poor areas were searched by armed soldiers. Many pro-Zelaya media outlets had been shut down since the coup; the ones that remained open were harassed by the government. Under the circumstances, coup supporter Porfirio Lobo easily won. The State Department recognized the election results, despite findings that more than half of voters stayed home.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, another policy group in Washington, D.C., says the White House’s actions in handling the Honduras crisis may have scarred future diplomatic relations in Latin America. “As of right now, the U.S.–Latin America policy is simply deplorable,” Birns says.

The vast majority of Latin American leaders have remained firm in their opposition to the coup government and the elections, creating a stress point in hemispheric relations. The Organization of American States, a prominent diplomatic assembly that includes the Untied States as a member, suspended Honduras from its alliance. Meanwhile, Zelaya continues to stay in the Brazilian embassy.

“The neglect and paralysis that characterized Bush’s policy seems to be Obama’s strategy as well,” Birns says, although he admits it is still possible the White House may be able to “turn it around.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter.