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Hounding Honduras

The Obama administration is determined to destroy democracy in Honduras in order to save it.

By 9.8.09

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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.

Even more bizarre, the State Department suggested that it might not accept the winner of the upcoming election. When asked if the U.S. would recognize the victor -- the race is between Zelaya's former vice president and the opposition party candidate whom Zelaya defeated four years ago -- an unnamed administration official opined: "We understand that the elections loom in the non-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 recognize the results of this election. So for the de facto regime, they're now in a box."

Actually, it is the people of Honduras who have been placed in a box. The interim administration has nothing to do with the election -- the holding of which offers further evidence that there was no coup, at least as commonly defined. Balloting is scheduled for Nov. 29, with the new president to take over on January 27. There have been no allegations that the present government intends to fix the vote, or prevent the real winner from taking office. The Obama administration is threatening to deny the legitimacy of the president to be freely chosen by the Honduran people in order to pressure the outgoing authorities to give Zelaya four more months in office.

It is an act of desperation by those who want Washington to impose its will in Tegucigalpa. Vicki Goss of the Washington Office on Latin America said: "It's critically important that the U.S. government has stated that they won't recognize the November elections." Yet this step would hurt not the supposedly illegitimate temporary regime, but its successor -- headed by a president who would have replaced Zelaya even had he never been removed.

Moreover, what happens on January 27 if the Honduran authorities still say no? Would the Obama administration refuse to recognize the new government because the previous administration refused to restore to power a man no longer authorized to serve under any interpretation of the Honduras' constitution? How then would Washington allow Tegucigalpa to escape the box -- delay the inauguration of a new chief executive and bring Zelaya back for a few more months? Talk about being in a box: the Obama administration either would have to stick with sanctions which had lost their raison d'être or initiate a humiliating climb-down from its moral high horse.

Washington is attempting to destroy democracy in the name of saving it. And to do so by behaving like the worst sort of Yanqui-imperialist from yesteryear.

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

Julia F. Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations complains: "If they can't get the cast of characters in Honduras to behave the way they want them to, how are they going to deal with Afghanistan or Iran?"

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

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).