Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Silence of the Loons: The Obama Administration's Quiet About Face on Honduras


Hillary ClintonManuel Zelaya and Hugo ChavezBarack Obama

A Relatively Quiet Honduras

We have not heard much recently about events in Honduras, where the constitutional crisis provoked by the ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya last June dominated news on U.S.-Latin American relations for months. The recent negotiation of an agreement to resolve the conflict and continue with the presidential elections scheduled for last November 29 apparently brought an end to the worst fears that the country might slip into political chaos. The Obama administration has dropped its earlier hard-line stance against the interim government and has very quietly recognized the results of the elections, which gave the presidency to National Party candidate Porfirio Lobo in a contest thankfully free of violence and in which voter participation met the requisite international norms.

The international community's previously unified stance in opposition to Zelaya's removal, which typified the political climate of the past five months, is now unraveling in the wake of the Honduran presidential elections. In addition to the U.S. acknowledgement of Lobo's victory, at least four other countries in the hemisphere have recognized the legitimacy of the vote; including Colombia, Panama, Peru, and neighboring Costa Rica. Naturally, a contradictory view is held in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Argentina; all of whom have announced their rejection of the election's results, though President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil has at least held out the possibility that his country would be open to some gesture which restores Zelaya in time to preside over the inaugural ceremonies, which are scheduled for January 27, when Lobo will assume the powers of his office under Honduran law.

The central problem the Hondurans now confront is deciding what to do with Zelaya, who remains holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, working his cell phone until the late evening hours trying to rally international support for his return and, in the opinion of the interim government and most Hondurans, trying to destabilize the impending presidential transition. The November accord negotiated to bring an end to the standoff Zelaya created when he sneaked back into the country last September required the Honduran Congress to vote on his reinstatement, which they did on December 2, rejecting him by a resounding vote of 111-14. Following this embarrassing defeat for the ex-President, which on his part suggests a serious lack of understanding of the wishes of the Honduran people, Mexico offered to take him out of the country and even sent a plane to pick him up. But the interim government refused to let Zelaya leave unless he agreed to travel only as a private citizen seeking asylum and not as a claimant to the presidency, an offer Zelaya rejected.

Honduran Congress Votes Overwhelmingly Against Reinstating Zelaya as President
Source: European Pressphoto Agency

Zelaya's Future: Embassy Prisoner, Destabilizing Force, or Exile?

The interim government's refusal to permit Zelaya to depart the country under any status other than that of a private citizen leaves the former president's own future in doubt. Brazil says he can remain at their embassy in Tegucigalpa and that no limit will be set on his stay. But this almost disinterested public stance on the part of the Brazilians is belied by the fact that they are also pressing the U.S. to secure Zelaya's safe passage out of the country, a position the State Department has supported consistently as part of the settlement of the crisis. President-elect Lobo has offered to meet with Zelaya "anywhere" to negotiate an end to the matter, though there is no mention of the possibility of any impending action the incoming President might take once in office.

Honduran leaders continue to insist that so long as Zelaya refuses to recognize the results of the election, that he will continue to represent a genuine threat to their country's stability. These fears are not entirely unfounded. Just this past week Fidel Castro sent a letter to Hugo Chavez to be read before the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Spanish acronym: ALBA) conference being held in Havana which accused the U.S. of continuing its historic tradition of "aggression" in Latin America and pointedly cited Honduras as the major focus of this renewed "offensive." Given that Chavez's fiery temperament does not lend itself to passive inaction, it should not be ruled out that he will be prepared to finance a campaign to destabilize the Central American country in retaliation for its rejection of his twenty-first century socialist agenda. President Micheletti has in fact warned of the possibility that Zelaya might try to attack Honduras from exile, which has been the interim government's primary motivation for refusing permission for the ousted leader to leave the country without a renunciation of his claims to power.

Why the Silence from Washington?

One almost has to dig a little to find any news out of Washington with respect to the Obama Administration's policy towards Honduras. Some of what they have released has been positive for its effect in dispelling misinformation. Immediately following the November 29 vote, the State Department acknowledged that turnout apparently had exceeded that of the previous presidential election, which conflicted with the propaganda emanating from the small minority who continue to support Zelaya within Honduras, doing much to dismiss it in the process. But the recurring refrain from Foggy Bottom has been constant on three points; Zelaya should be reinstated before the inauguration of the new President, a national unity government should be put in place to handle the transition to a new administration, and a "Truth Commission" should be formed to make clear to Hondurans, as well as the rest of the world, exactly what happened with respect to the ouster of Zelaya.

With the exception of the demand that Zelaya be returned to the presidency, it appears that the Hondurans are at least attempting to fulfill all other conditions Washington has set. The national unity government seemed to be in place until the Honduran Congress rejected Zelaya's reinstatement, and with less than six weeks remaining before Porfirio Lobo's inauguration, attention has shifted to the formation of his cabinet. The Truth Commission is still promised, but it will take Lobo's support to make it possible and he has pledged to move forward with the proposal. But one wonders just how much "truth" Washington will be able to take here. After all, it was the State Department which buried its own legal analysis of the events leading to Zelaya's overthrow, leaving the Congressional Research Service's study as the only publicly-released overview from within the U.S. government, and the CRS found that, with the exception of Zelaya's forced exile, practically everything that had been done in Honduras was in accordance with the country's constitution and laws.

Honduras is quite simply one topic the Obama Administration would prefer not to discuss. Wall Street Journal editorialist Mary Anastasia O'Grady revealed recently that she has learned of new evidence supporting the allegation that Zelaya intended to use the supposed "non-binding" referendum on constitutional reform to remain in power, after Honduran officials informed her of a planned celebration for the evening of the vote which several leftist Latin American presidents would attend, as well as Zelaya's refusal to authorize the transfer of state funds to enable the November elections to proceed. Yes; a Truth Commission may be a good idea indeed, but how much embarrassment will the Obama Administration face as a consequence if its policy of supporting Zelaya's return is shown to be flawed for upholding an attempted overthrow of Honduran constitutional democracy?

It may be that a larger problem the Obama Administration faces is that the 2008 presidential campaign is over and they are now learning that the sloganeering and public posturing that appealed to the left wing of their political base does not work in the real world. During the campaign, then-Senator Obama frequently mentioned--and genuinely overstated--the problems Colombia had with labor violence, pinning the "right wing bastards" label on the country and its government, a tactic that had broad appeal among the American left, especially when coupled with political rallies and campaign offices where Ché t-shirts and posters abounded. But now that the work of governing has begun, the administration has moved to expand the U.S. military presence in Colombia, an act directly at odds with Obama's earlier opposition to Plan Colombia while on the campaign trail. Pro-Chavez Obama supporters are not an unknown quantity--they are rather numerous in fact--and it cannot be easy for the new President to explain the Chavez threat to them, whose nature is now grasped at least in part within the administration, regardless of the rhetoric, which the expansion of Plan Colombia makes clear. This same analysis can be applied to Honduras.

Thus can we arrive at an explanation for the silence in Washington with respect to the Honduran crisis. Coming so soon after a major national election, Obama cannot expect forgetful minds to overlook the atmosphere of the recent campaign. Containing or deterring Chavez's threats to Colombia and Honduras have become necessary goals within his Latin American policy. And when compared against his campaign rhetoric and the posture of the American left that supports him, the distinctions have become recognizably broad.

One wonders if there are those in the new administration in Washington who are asking themselves just how looney the American left truly is for its failure to grasp the reality of Chavismo in action. Such questions do not return easy answers.

So perhaps the best thing for the Obama Administration to do is to stay silent and leave the loons to their delusions. Even if they did vote for you. And especially if you want them to think you're still one of them.


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