Hounding Honduras

This article appeared in the American Spectator on September 8, 2009.

Honduras will be holding an election in a couple of months.Washington is threatening not to recognize the result. Would theObama administration prefer a full‐​blown military dictatorshiptake power?

The saga of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has entered itsthird month. On June 28 the Honduras military, in response to anarrest warrant from the nation’s Supreme Court, rousted Zelayafrom his bed and deported him. Since then the U.S., Organizationof American States, and most of Honduras’ neighbors have pressedfor his return.

The controversy can best be described as a muddled mess. Zelaya’sterm was set to expire in January; elections, in which thecandidates already had been chosen, were scheduled for November.Zelaya, who moved sharply left after his victory and alliedhimself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, proposed aNational Constituent Assembly to amend the Honduran constitution.

The subject to be addressed was not specified, but Zelaya wassuspected of wanting to follow Chavez’s example of using anational plebiscite to drop term limits, which are enshrined inthe Honduran constitution. Indeed, the constitution specifiedthat to even propose their elimination is grounds for immediateremoval from office.

Presuming that this was his intent, the Honduran high courtvoided the poll. Zelaya attempted to hold the vote anyway,causing the Supreme Court to issue the warrant. After his ousterthe National Congress name legislative head Roberto Michelettiinterim president.

The result is a perfect legal imbroglio. Zelaya claimed themilitary mounted an illegal coup. The Micheletti government saysthe military never took power and acted at the behest of theCourt and Congress (the constitution does not provide forlegislative impeachment). There was no legal authority forexiling Zelaya, but the Honduran authorities claimed exigentcircumstances. Much depends on an assessment of his intentions,and whether those assumptions should be treated as facts.

Was Zelaya a dedicated populist or putative dictator? There aregrounds for suspicion, yet his popularity had dropped sharplybefore his ouster and he was opposed even by many in his ownparty. Polls show Hondurans to be sharply divided, agreeing thatthere were legal grounds for the military’s action but opposingZelaya’s ouster.

The bestposition for the U.S. would have been to stay out of thecontroversy. Let the Hondurans work it out themselves. TheMicheletti government has been heavy‐​handed in breaking updemonstrations. But this is not North Korea, Burma, or Cuba, inwhich liberty has been extirpated and regime critics face prisonor worse. Nothing required Washington to do anything.

However, Zelaya immediately became the latest causecélèbre of the Left in America. Activists who earlierdemonstrated denouncing U.S. intervention suddenly began churningout blog posts demanding that Washington “restore democracy” inTegucigalpa. The means: obnoxious and officious U.S. meddling.

The Obama administration, OAS, and neighboring countries all haveinsisted that Zelaya be returned to power. Costa Rica’s OscarArias, among others, has proposed a compromise recalling Zelayawhile restricting his authority. But the bottom line is the claimthat Zelaya remains Honduras’ rightful president.

The Micheletti government, backed by most of the nation’straditional power centers, including the Catholic Church, hasrefused to consider any Zelaya restoration. Roberto Michelettihas offered to step down, but those backing him believe Zelaya’spresidency was legitimately ended by an authoritative decision ofthe Honduran Supreme Court.

The OAS is essentially powerless — it suspended Honduras’smembership, but can do little more. Honduras’ neighbors areunlikely to do anything other than lecture. The European Unionsuspended some foreign assistance, but can do no more. Thus, ifanyone can force Tegucigalpa into line, it is the U.S. In fact,Zelaya contended that Washington needs “only tighten its fist” torestore him. However, other than mounting a military invasion orimposing a trade embargo, America’s power, too, is limited.

The administration initially suspended $22 million in aid, mostlyfor the military, and invalidated visas for officials in theinterim regime. Moreover, last week Obama officials said they’rereconsidering the status of America’s four‐​year $215 million aidprogram. So far the Micheletti government has refused to bend.

Thus, the administration is ratcheting up the pressure. The StateDepartment froze all non‐​immigrant visas. Roughly 30,000 visasare granted for business and tourist purposes every year, whichmeans about 2,500 people a month are being inconvenienced by theU.S. action. State explained that it was “conducting a fullreview of our visa policy.”

No one explained exactly how preventing a Honduran businessmanfrom traveling to America to complete a deal will help Zelaya’squest. Perhaps President Obama expects frustrated children hopingto go to Disney World to rise up and overthrow the Michelettiadministration. In fact, outside sanctions typically encouragepeople to rally around their governments rather than back theinterfering outsiders.

Even more bizarre, the State Department suggested that it mightnot accept the winner of the upcoming election. When asked if theU.S. would recognize the victor — the race is between Zelaya’sformer vice president and the opposition party candidate whomZelaya defeated four years ago — an unnamed administrationofficial opined: “We understand that the elections loom in thenon‐​distant future. We certainly want this resolved before then.”

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley was even blunter:“Based on conditions as they currently exist, we cannot recognizethe results of this election. So for the de facto regime, they’renow in a box.”

Actually, it is the people of Honduras who have been placed in abox. The interim administration has nothing to do with theelection — the holding of which offers further evidence thatthere was no coup, at least as commonly defined. Balloting isscheduled for Nov. 29, with the new president to take over onJanuary 27. There have been no allegations that the presentgovernment intends to fix the vote, or prevent the real winnerfrom taking office. The Obama administration is threatening todeny the legitimacy of the president to be freely chosen by theHonduran people in order to pressure the outgoing authorities togive Zelaya four more months in office.

It is an act of desperation by those who want Washington toimpose its will in Tegucigalpa. Vicki Goss of the WashingtonOffice on Latin America said: “It’s critically important that theU.S. government has stated that they won’t recognize the Novemberelections.” Yet this step would hurt not the supposedlyillegitimate temporary regime, but its successor — headed by apresident who would have replaced Zelaya even had he never beenremoved.

Moreover, what happens on January 27 if the Honduran authoritiesstill say no? Would the Obama administration refuse to recognizethe new government because the previous administration refused torestore to power a man no longer authorized to serve under anyinterpretation of the Honduras’ constitution? How then wouldWashington allow Tegucigalpa to escape the box — delay theinauguration of a new chief executive and bring Zelaya back for afew more months? Talk about being in a box: the Obamaadministration either would have to stick with sanctions whichhad lost their raison d’être or initiate a humiliatingclimb‐​down from its moral high horse.

Washington is attempting to destroy democracy in the name ofsaving it. And to do so by behaving like the worst sort ofYanqui‐​imperialist from yesteryear.

Even of the U.S. succeeded in imposing its will, the likelyresult would be to worsen the crisis. Observes Eric Farnsworth ofthe Council of the Americas, State’s action “limits our options,a violation of the first law of diplomacy, by taking off thetable the one means by which the crisis could naturally beresolved.” Imposing an outcome from the outside, an outcomeunsatisfactory to many Hondurans, via U.S. diktat likely woulddeepen political divisions within Honduras. Greater, not lesser,social strife likely would result.

Julia F. Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations complains: “Ifthey can’t get the cast of characters in Honduras to behave theway they want them to, how are they going to deal withAfghanistan or Iran?”

But Afghanistan and Iran matter in ways that Honduras does not.Nothing important enough is at stake in Honduras to warrantactive intervention in a complex and emotional political strugglethat concerns the people of Honduras, not America.