Obama and the Honduran Crisis: Friend or Foe of Enlightened Change?

As the OAS prepares to send a delegation to Honduras – basically on terms dictated by Roberto Micheletti, the head of the golpista government – one can be excused for questioning why this crisis in democratic governance has yet to be resolved. The hemisphere has been unusually united in its condemnation of the coup, as has the entire international community. The United States, in line with President Barack Obama’s stated commitment to adopt more of an equal partnership in regional affairs, took a back seat – almost to a fault – putatively encouraging all of Latin America to share responsibility. But the U.S.’ failure to share authentic solidarity with the rest of the Americas, and its reluctance to take the initiative to project its obvious preeminence when it comes to Western Hemispheric affairs, prevented the region from moving toward a resolution of the constitutional crisis affecting the Central American country. In fact, the dirty little secret known to all Latin American nations is that only Washington possesses the exercisable clout necessary to force outcome on its terms. By playing cat and mouse with the rest of the hemisphere, it has jeopardized, not only the restoration of democracy in Honduras, but also future ties between the U.S. and its now rambunctious former backyard.

The Initial Reaction
On June 29, the day following the military ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, President Obama had the fortitude to assert that “the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in turn expressed her belief that the situation in Honduras had “evolved into a coup.” However, these hearty words may have been the high water mark for the administration’s zeal over the future status of Honduras’ constitutional prospects. In addition to a disturbing lack of candor which may come to bedevil the quality of inter-American affairs, the United States is offering up much less than meets the eye by acknowledging that it is “withholding any formal legal determination” that would officially label the ouster of Zelaya as a “military coup.”

After being accused of passivity, the White House responded that it has been very clear in stating its belief that President Zelaya was “removed from office illegally, that it was a coup and that he should return.” But when asked whether reinstatement was a U.S. priority, Secretary of State Clinton responded: “We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on, because we’re working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives.” In effect, this agglutination of language added up to very little. Officially coining the ouster of Zelaya as a military coup would of course obligate the Obama Administration to cut millions of dollars of aid to the already impoverished Central American country. In effect, it would also conclude the saga of Honduras against the world, because a termination of U.S. aid would end the matter. Economic sanctions applied by the U.S. would also be in order, a potentially devastating blow, given Washington’s gargantuan role as Honduras’ biggest trading partner. Washington policy makers say that they do not want to take unilateral action, despite the fact that employing “coercive diplomacy” would all but guarantee the reinstatement of Zelaya as president of Honduras. But the fact is that every member of the OAS and the EU has withdrawn their ambassador from Tegucigalpa save the United States.

Washington has, in fact, thus far refused to recognize the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, suspended military aid to Honduras and rescinded the diplomatic visas of a handful of interim Honduran leaders, but this flurry of activity is somewhat deceptive as it has had no fateful consequences for the anti-Zelaya forces. Because the Obama Administration has pledged no longer to plunder in its traditional back yard, more drastic measures are not presently being considered. “The same critics who say the US has not intervened in Honduras are the same people who say we are always intervening and Yankees need to get out of Latin America,” Obama observed. But here Obama plays at being coy. At the end of the day, the world, except for his administration, has cut off aid and recognition. The Obama Administration cannot distance itself from these arguments and pretend it has reformed and become an Eagle Scout.

The Current Policy: Working to Find or Prevent a Solution?
Presently, the law of inertia and the U.S.’ failure to mobilize its diplomatic as well as tangible resources seems to have kept Washington in the background. But each passing day brings an increasing suspicion that the United States, like the coupsters themselves, aims to simply wait it out until November’s presidential elections, when Zelaya’s reinstatement is no longer a topic of debate, since his formal presidential mandate will then be drawing to a close. A number of U.S. lawmakers feel that they are in the dark as to what the Obama Administration plans to do. In this respect, Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) has been good enough to demand that some light be shed on the issue. He has even warned that key State Department appointments could be held up unless the administration gave a “detailed clarification” of the steps it intended to take in its foreign policy toward Honduras. The State Department responded with an August 4 letter to Senator Lugar, written by Richard Verma, the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs. “Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual,” wrote Verma. “Rather, it is based on finding a resolution that best serves the Honduran people and their democratic aspirations.” But this string of language brings only empty calories to the table and leaves the door wide open for any policy which the White House chooses to follow. By allowing it to survive, the U.S. is enabling the Micheletti regime to carry on to the end of the year, trumping the entire membership of the OAS with its obstinance and guile.

Clinton’s Honduras Strategy Develops – or Deteriorates
Shortly after the coup took place, Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed, “Much of our assistance is conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system, but if we were able to get to a status quo that returned to the rule of law and constitutional order within a relatively short period of time, I think that would be a good outcome.” So much for high-minded democratic rhetoric. The recently composed State Department letter clearly implies that the Obama Administration no longer views Zelaya’s reinstatement as necessary for the restoration of constitutional democracy in Honduras. Thus, one can safely say here that Clinton and her diplomatic team aren’t necessarily planning for Zelaya to reoccupy the Tegucigalpa presidential palace any time soon, despite the fact that President Obama called for the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya as recently as August 10, almost a week after the letter to Senator Lugar had been sent.

Though the State Department condemned the coup in the above letter, it brought another interesting variable into the equation when it recognized that, “President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal.” Hence, the letter not only indicates a shifting stance on the issue of the centrality of Zelaya’s reinstatement, but also justifies its backtracking by adopting the Micheletti faction’s line that Zelaya’s actions in seeking the constitutional opinion of the citizens on whether or not to reform the Constitution (an action his opponents claimed was designed to allow him to run for another term) served as a sufficient affront to provoke the crisis in the first place. Yet this was not precisely the original formulation of the OAS, Costa Rican President and mediator Oscar Arias, or even President Obama’s initial position. What we are witnessing is the development of a fall-back strategy which is not new, creative, or necessarily fully responsive. In fact, it could have been the exact policy, dressed up and sent out to salute the flag, of the Bush Administration, or even the Reagan Administration before it.

A Bit of Military History
This reluctance by the administration to brand the change of power as a military coup is clearly misplaced. Although the army quickly handed power over to the congress, as if it was dealing with poison ivy, this relatively small detail should not obscure the fact that President Zelaya was removed from the country, and kept out of it, by military force, in direct contravention of the Honduran Constitution.

The Honduran military’s involvement in this Rotarian-like mission should come as no surprise, as it has always been the defender of Honduras’ entrenched powers as well as U.S. interests, broadly defined. During John Negroponte’s tenure as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, the country served as an “unsinkable aircraft” and a base for U.S. military operations aimed at destroying the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and defending the right-wing rulers of El Salvador. These wars may have devastated Central America, but Washington’s aims were well served even at the handsome price paid out by the CIA and the U.S. embassy at the time.

It was over this same time period that the infamous death squad Battalion 316 started to crush dissent in a process in which scores of innocent civilians were murdered. Then head of the army, General Gustavo Alvarez, who was chummy with Ambassador Negroponte, oversaw many of its operations and acted as a strongman, simply using the civilian president to achieve his and Washington’s ends. Alvarez fled the country in 1984 after refusing to yield to the pressure of his outraged military comrades-in-arms with whom he allegedly refused to share millions of dollars in pay-offs from the CIA and the U.S. embassy. Later he foolishly returned and was promptly shot to death in 1989. He was never indicted for any of the war crimes he committed. When asked questions about this and other compromising episodes, Negroponte has repeatedly lapsed into amnesia interruptus when trying to recall these seminal events.

What this indicates is that although this military-fueled reign of terror ended nearly 30 years ago, the government institutions of Honduras have traditionally been controlled by a tight cadre of military hardliners who habitually step in to “correct” or redirect their nation’s policies. The democratic institutions present in Honduras today are still a matter more of form than substance, as they revealed themselves to be when President Zelaya was so effortlessly removed. So it should raise no eyebrows that, faced with a threat to the status quo, Latin America’s preeminent banana republic, with its hard right economic principles, would revert to what it knows best – military intervention in the civilian political process – in order to preserve the corruption which for decades has been allowed as a mainstay of that society.

Although Obama’s rhetoric and selective reopening of what turned out to be a highly limited dialogue between Washington and Havana seemed to usher in a new era in the relationship between, not only the island, but also the entire region, and its resident superpower, the concessions made by the State Department turned out to be quite minimal and the changes demanded by Secretary of State Clinton demonstrated no ascertainable departure from the routine positions of decades of past U.S. administrations. Thus, a possible golden moment, in which Washington’s previously compromised image in Latin America could have been magically transformed, was allowed to pass with minimal skill and finesse. Washington’s long-term contempt, double standards, and selective indignation when it comes to Cuba has been one of the primary sources of Latin American criticism of the Obama Administration and has conjured up the wrong kind of international attention, particularly at June’s OAS summit in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the U.S. was the only country to abstain from the vote that lifted the suspension of Cuba’s membership in the organization.

As demonstrated by Clinton’s disappointing performance at the OAS session, Washington has not yet been able to move away from the Cold War mentality that allows the embargo to remain in place more than 50 years after it was instated. While every other nation voted that the time had long since come to return Cuba to its seat at the OAS, the U.S. abstained, doing little to help its damaged reputation. Although Clinton had the good sense not to vote against the resolution or link herself too strongly to the case against it, this charade demonstrated the solid presence of the remnants of past policy that still linger in the minds of today’s decision makers. This was one of the first signs that Obama’s new relationship with Latin America was, at least at this early stage, little better than a Mickey Mouse encounter.

The Failures of Washington’s Current Honduras Policy
Honduras is the latest proof that the Obama Administration’s reluctance to implement significant change in the U.S.’ Latin America policy is impeding progress in a vitally important policy-making sector. By standing by and not taking decisive action, it has, perhaps unwittingly and certainly at great cost to its own reputation, allowed the Micheletti faction to gain security at home and an ill-deserved sense of legitimacy abroad. The extra-constitutional government is now tactically in a position of ascendancy, brazenly dictating its terms to the country, the OAS and the international community. The U.S. has stood by and allowed the rump government to gain far more than a foothold, which looks harder to shake with each passing hour.

The Obama Administration has both voiced its rather passive desire to restore constitutional democracy to Honduras and red flagged Zelaya’s “provocative” actions as a causative factor of the coup, hence the launching of the explanation for the current lack of aggressiveness behind the effort to reinstate him as president. Yet, Zelaya’s performance was just provocative and no more so than a Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Obama campaign address. We can see that if left to Washington, Zelaya would be well into his first year of retirement whether or not he actually violated any constitutional laws prior to his extra-legal removal from office, an accusation which remains very controversial, even at this late date. What is certain – much more so than the illegality of anything Zelaya did while in office – is that several clear violations of Honduras’ constitution were committed on June 28, including the detention of President Zelaya by the armed forces (violation of articles 293 and 272), his forced deportation to another country (article 102) and Congress’ unqualified decision to replace the executive.

When is a Coup a Coup?
The State Department’s failure to label the events of June 28 a military coup has so far allowed economic aid to continue to flow to the Central American nation where it provides the Micheletti regime with the oxygen it needs to survive. By failing to recall Ambassador Hugo Llorens, Washington sent unclear signals about the degree of its rejection of the coup. Additionally, there has been insufficient investigation into the depth of repression and the range of human rights violations taking place under the current military-installed regime. At the end of July, the Committee of Families of Disappeared-Detainees in Honduras, a nongovernmental human rights organization, reported that more than 1,100 human-rights violations – arbitrary detentions, physical assaults, murders and attacks on the media by the government and affiliated clandestine forces – had taken place since the coup began, a charge which surely deserves to be scrutinized.

Former close campaign aide of Hillary Clinton and current extremely high-paid lobbyist Lanny Davis, who has long been a friend of free trade and has now been hired by business backers of the recent takeover to defend the June 28 coup, responded to questions regarding these alleged human rights violations by diverting attention to his version of Zelaya’s role in the onset of the crisis. “I researched the facts on what occurred during the presidency of Mr. Zelaya. Mr. Zelaya led mob violence, and you can see that on a YouTube video,” said Davis. If Mr. Davis’ research on Latin American issues had been a bit more comprehensive and a little less self-serving, he might have come forth with a more sophisticated, if less lucrative, analysis of the subject – one that differentiated between stretching the limits of power and trampling on a constitution while claiming to uphold it. The commitment to human rights of any regime that takes advice from Fernando “Billy” Joya – the notorious former member of Battalion 316, who fled his home country in 1982 after he was accused of, among other things, kidnapping and torture – must be profoundly challenged.

Furthermore, the imposition and extension of restrictive curfews since June 28 are common knowledge. The interim government has clearly infringed upon freedom of speech and of the press, and if the accusations of forced disappearances as well as daylight murders that have surfaced have any substance, these allegations must be vigorously investigated.

The Real Hypocrite?
It is perplexing that the United States did not summarily respond to these allegations of undemocratic human rights violations, particularly given Washington’s recent decision to terminate $64 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation aid to Nicaragua over “the government of Nicaragua’s likely manipulation of municipal elections.” The U.S. canceled the MCC compact so that it would remain consistent in its aid provision standards. By not taking aggressive action in the wake of the recent Honduran crisis, however, the Obama Administration is displaying a damaging inconsistency and a disquieting double standard in its support for some questionable democracies in Latin America, but not others.

The State Department’s contention that “all states should seek to facilitate a solution without calls for violence and with respect for the principle of nonintervention” suggests hypocrisy when you consider the administration’s still highly intrusive and very much outdated policy toward Cuba. We are not witnessing signs of a de facto regime that is either tolerant or tolerable, yet Obama and Clinton have not convincingly demonstrated their unwillingness to accept these golpistas as legitimate political players. Coherence in Obama’s foreign policy toward Latin America is clearly in short supply.

The Time Factor
With every day that passes, the power of those charged by the global community with violating the Honduran Constitution and international law has become more entrenched. Again, Washington has failed to acknowledge the importance of a quick resolution of the crisis. Micheletti’s unwavering strategy has been to stonewall the matter, banking on his ability to hold onto the presidency until the elections scheduled for this coming November, in which Zelaya cannot run, are staged. UNASUR, which doesn’t include the United States in its membership, has declared that it will not recognize the results of any elections held under the auspices of the interim government, but the U.S. has taken no such action. On the contrary, it has stood idly by while those who staged the coup (for the most part members of the privileged economic classes that saw their traditional advantages as threatened by Zelaya’s left-leaning reforms and Honduras’ new membership in the Chávez-led ALBA) stabilize their regime.

Is It Too Late to Save Honduras?
It is too late for Washington to go back and unwind its past actions. This would have meant withdrawing Ambassador Llorens and decisively cutting economic support to the self proclaimed interim government, delivering the would-be coup a knockout blow by adopting a process that would lead to the reinstatement of the democratically elected President Zelaya. The Americas must not be bored by such a procedure or tire of their responsibility.

If the elections are staged with the de facto government still in power, matters will become inadmissibly complicated. Acceptance of those elections would validate the coup government. At the same time, a refusal to do so could plunge Honduras into an indefinite state of isolation from which it could not easily escape. The problem is that no mechanism currently exists for deciding when the next round of elections will once again be legitimate. Thus, it is imperative that a mechanism be arranged for Micheletti and his illegal administration to step down before the electoral process is resumed.

In order to ensure the return of lawful governance in Honduras, the United States, the most powerful member of the OAS, which has up to now been inappropriately cautious, must take decisive action against the current regime. Zelaya’s ouster is not, as the coup-backers have painted it, a great victory for democracy. Rather, it is a turn away from that ideal. If democratic order is not restored, it will represent a crushing victory for the economically privileged and a telling set-back for democratic values, further dividing an already deeply polarized society. Moreover, Zelaya’s downfall will undermine Obama’s efforts to reconstruct Washington’s image in Latin America and the nature of its relationship to the region on more generous terms. As Lanny Davis signs on to defend this extra-constitutional change of power to officials in Washington and Hillary Clinton describes Zelaya’s desire to return to the country from which he was evicted as “reckless,” Micheletti sits in Zelaya’s place, without winning a single vote, and dictates terms to international organizations. This bodes poorly for Obama’s credibility and has the potential to freeze in place the new democratic order of which the American president spoke even before it is launched. Although many believed that this administration was ready to turn over a new leaf in the region, its timidity up to now has prevented it from doing so. Already Cuba and now Honduras have come to constitute the broken bones of what had been the hopes enkindled by Obama’s rhetoric. These proud dreams have been all but suffocated by the lack of a responsible Latin America policy behind them.