The Obama administration is determined to destroy democracy in Honduras in order to save it.
Honduras will be holding an election in a couple of months. Washington is threatening not to recognize the result. Would the Obama administration prefer a full-blown military dictatorship take power?
The saga of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has entered its third month. On June 28 the Honduras military, in response to an arrest warrant from the nation’s Supreme Court, rousted Zelaya from his bed and deported him. Since then the U.S., Organization of American States, and most of Honduras’ neighbors have pressed for his return.
The controversy can best be described as a muddled mess. Zelaya’s term was set to expire in January; elections, in which the candidates already had been chosen, were scheduled for November. Zelaya, who moved sharply left after his victory and allied himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, proposed a National Constituent Assembly to amend the Honduran constitution.
The subject to be addressed was not specified, but Zelaya was suspected of wanting to follow Chavez’s example of using a national plebiscite to drop term limits, which are enshrined in the Honduran constitution. Indeed, the constitution specified that to even propose their elimination is grounds for immediate removal from office.
Presuming that this was his intent, the Honduran high court voided the poll. Zelaya attempted to hold the vote anyway, causing the Supreme Court to issue the warrant. After his ouster the National Congress name legislative head Roberto Micheletti interim president.
The result is a perfect legal imbroglio. Zelaya claimed the military mounted an illegal coup. The Micheletti government says the military never took power and acted at the behest of the Court and Congress (the constitution does not provide for legislative impeachment). There was no legal authority for exiling Zelaya, but the Honduran authorities claimed exigent circumstances. 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 are grounds for suspicion, yet his popularity had dropped sharply before his ouster and he was opposed even by many in his own party. Polls show Hondurans to be sharply divided, agreeing that there were legal grounds for the military’s action but opposing Zelaya’s ouster.
The best position for the U.S. would have been to stay out of the controversy. Let the Hondurans work it out themselves. The Micheletti government has been heavy-handed in breaking up demonstrations. But this is not North Korea, Burma, or Cuba, in which liberty has been extirpated and regime critics face prison or worse. Nothing required Washington to do anything.
However, Zelaya immediately became the latest cause célèbre of the Left in America. Activists who earlier demonstrated denouncing U.S. intervention suddenly began churning out blog posts demanding that Washington “restore democracy” in Tegucigalpa. The means: obnoxious and officious U.S. meddling.
The Obama administration, OAS, and neighboring countries all have insisted that Zelaya be returned to power. Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias, among others, has proposed a compromise recalling Zelaya while restricting his authority. But the bottom line is the claim that Zelaya remains Honduras’ rightful president.
The Micheletti government, backed by most of the nation’s traditional power centers, including the Catholic Church, has refused to consider any Zelaya restoration. Roberto Micheletti has offered to step down, but those backing him believe Zelaya’s presidency was legitimately ended by an authoritative decision of the Honduran Supreme Court.
The OAS is essentially powerless — it suspended Honduras’s membership, but can do little more. Honduras’ neighbors are unlikely to do anything other than lecture. The European Union suspended some foreign assistance, but can do no more. Thus, if anyone can force Tegucigalpa into line, it is the U.S. In fact, Zelaya contended that Washington needs “only tighten its fist” to restore him. However, other than mounting a military invasion or imposing a trade embargo, America’s power, too, is limited.
The administration initially suspended $22 million in aid, mostly for the military, and invalidated visas for officials in the interim regime. Moreover, last week Obama officials said they’re reconsidering the status of America’s four-year $215 million aid program. So far the Micheletti government has refused to bend.
Thus, the administration is ratcheting up the pressure. The State Department froze all non-immigrant visas. Roughly 30,000 visas are granted for business and tourist purposes every year, which means about 2,500 people a month are being inconvenienced by the U.S. action. State explained that it was “conducting a full review of our visa policy.”
No one explained exactly how preventing a Honduran businessman from traveling to America to complete a deal will help Zelaya’s quest. Perhaps President Obama expects frustrated children hoping to go to Disney World to rise up and overthrow the Micheletti administration. In fact, outside sanctions typically encourage people to rally around their governments rather than back the interfering outsiders.
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