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Latin America Drags a Reluctant Washington Into Supporting Democracy in Honduras

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The military coup that overthrew Honduras' elected president Manuel Zelaya brought unanimous international condemnation. But some country's responses have been more reluctant than others, and Washington's ambivalence has begun to raise suspicions about what the U.S. government is really trying to accomplish in this situation.

The first statement from the White House in response to the coup was weak and non-committal. It did not denounce the coup but rather called upon "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter."

This contrasted with statements from other presidents in the hemisphere, such as Lula da Silva of Brazil and President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, who denounced the coup and called for the re-instatement of President Zelaya. The European Union issued a similar, less ambiguous, and more immediate response.

Later in the day, as the response of other nations became clear, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a stronger statement, that condemned the coup - without calling it a coup. But it still didn't say anything about Zelaya returning to the presidency.

The Organization of American States, the Rio Group (most of Latin America), and the United Nations General Assembly have all called for the "immediate and unconditional return" of President Zelaya.

The strong stances from the South brought statements from anonymous State Department officials that were more supportive of President Zelaya's return. And by Monday afternoon President Obama finally said, "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras . . ."

But at a press conference later on Monday, Secretary of State Clinton was asked if "restoring the constitutional order" in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself. She would not say yes.

Why such reluctance to openly call for the immediate and unconditional return of an elected president, as the rest of the hemisphere and the United Nations has done? One obvious possibility is that Washington does not share these goals. The coup leaders have no international support but they could still succeed by running out the clock - Zelaya has less than six months left in his term. Will the Obama administration support sanctions against the coup government in order to prevent this? The neighboring governments of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have already fired a warning shot by announcing a 48-hour cut-off of trade.

By contrast, one reason for Hillary Clinton's reluctance to call the coup a coup is because the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act prohibits funds going to governments where the head of state has been deposed by a military coup.

Unconditional is also a key word here: the Administration may want to extract concessions from Zelaya as part of a deal for his return to office. But this is not how democracy works. If Zelaya wants to negotiate a settlement with his political opponents after he returns, that is another story. But nobody has the right to extract political concession from him in exile, over the barrel of a gun.

There is no excuse for this coup. A constitutional crisis came to a head when President Zelaya ordered the military to distribute materials for a non-binding referendum to be held last Sunday. The referendum asked citizens to vote on whether they were in favor of including a proposal for a constituent assembly, to redraft the constitution, on the November ballot. The head of the military, General Romeo Vasquez refused to carry out the President's orders. The president, as commander-in-chief of the military, then fired Vasquez, whereupon the Defense Minister resigned. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the president's firing of Vasquez was illegal, and the majority of the Congress has gone against President Zelaya.

Supporters of the coup argue that the president violated the law by attempting to go ahead with the referendum after the Supreme Court ruled against it. This is a legal question; it may be true, or it may be that the Supreme Court had no legal basis for its ruling. But it is irrelevant to the what has happened: the military is not the arbiter of a constitutional dispute between the various branches of government. This is especially true in this case, in that the proposed referendum was a non-binding and merely consultative plebiscite. It would not have changed any law nor affected the structure of power; it was merely a poll of the electorate.

Therefore, the military cannot claim that it acted to prevent any irreparable harm. This is a military coup carried out for political purposes.

There are other issues where our government has been oddly silent. Reports of political repression, the closing of TV and radio stations, the detention of journalists, detention and physical abuse of diplomats, and what the Committee to Protect Journalists has called a "media blackout" have yet to draw a serious rebuke from Washington. By controlling information and repressing dissent, the Honduran de facto government is also setting the stage for unfair elections in November.

Many press reports have contrasted the Obama administration's rejection of the Honduran coup with the Bush administration's initial support for the 2002 military coup that briefly overthrew President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But actually there are more similarities than differences between the U.S. response to these two events. Within a day, the Bush administration reversed its official position on the Venezuelan coup, because the rest of the hemisphere had announced that it would not recognize the coup government. Similarly, in this case, the Obama administration is following the rest of the hemisphere, trying not to be the odd man out but at the same time not really sharing their commitment to democracy.

It was not until some months after the Venezuelan coup that the State Department admitted that it had given financial and other support "to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government."

In the Honduran coup, the Obama administration claims that it tried to discourage the Honduran military from taking this action. It would be interesting to know what these discussions were like. Did administration officials say, "You know that we will have to say that we are against such a move if you do it, because everyone else will?" Or was it more like, "Don't do it, because we will do everything in our power to reverse any such coup."? The administration's actions since the coup indicate something more like the former, if not worse.

The battle between Zelaya and his opponents pits a reform president who is supported by labor unions and social organizations against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to choosing not only the Supreme Court and the Congress, but also the president. It is a recurrent story in Latin America, and the United States has almost always sided with the elites. In this case, Washington has a very close relationship with the Honduran military, which goes back decades. During the 1980's, the U.S. used bases in Honduras to train and arm the Contras, Nicaraguan paramilitaries who became known for their atrocities in their war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.

The hemisphere has changed substantially since the Venezuelan coup in April of 2002, with 11 more left governments having been elected. A whole set of norms, institutions, and power relations between South and North in the hemisphere have been altered. The Obama administration today faces neighbors that are much more united and much less willing to compromise on fundamental questions of democracy. So Secretary of State Clinton will probably not have that much room to maneuver. Still, the administration's ambivalence will be noticed in Honduras and can very likely encourage the de facto government there to try and hang on to power. That could be very damaging.

This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on July 1, 2009.