Powerful special interests -- energy, coal, utilities, financial, pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies -- have flexed their muscles and confronted President Obama on the most important legislative priorities of his domestic agenda. But this kind of politics-by-influence-peddling doesn't stop at the water's edge. And in foreign policy, the consequences can be more immediately violent and deadly.
Meet Lanny Davis, Washington lawyer and lobbyist, former legal counsel to President Bill Clinton and avid campaigner for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. He has been hired by a coalition of business interests to represent the dictatorship that ousted elected President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in a military coup three weeks ago. President Zelaya was taken by soldiers at gunpoint from his home and removed to Costa Rica.
Davis is working with Bennett Ratcliff, another lobbyist with a close relationship to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a former senior executive for one of the most influential political and public relations firms in Washington's history. According to the New York Times, in current mediation efforts, the coup government did not make a move without first consulting Ratcliff.
Davis and Ratcliff have done an amazing public relations job so far. The average American believes that President Zelaya was ousted because he tried to use a referendum to extend his term of office. This is not only false but impossible. Zelaya's proposed referendum on the day of the coup was a non-binding poll of the electorate. It only asked voters if they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the country's constitution, on the November ballot. Even if Zelaya had gotten everything he was looking for, a new president would have been elected on the same November ballot. So Zelaya would be out of office in January, no matter what steps were taken toward constitutional reform.
If we add together the high power lobbyists from the Clinton camp, Republican Senators and members of Congress, and conservatives within the State Department, the coup government has an awful lot of support from the U.S.
So it's up to President Obama to do the right thing. He can have the U.S. Treasury freeze the coup leaders' bank accounts and deny them visas to the U.S. He could also impose trade sanctions for any part of the 70 percent of Honduran trade that is with the United States. He would have worldwide support: both the Organization of American States and the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to demand the "immediate and unconditional" reinstatement of President Zelaya.
Almost all of the Latin American governments -- which are mostly left of center -- also sympathize with Zelaya because he is a reform president fighting against a corrupt oligarchy. In one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, he raised the minimum wage by 60 percent and increased teachers' salaries and public pensions, as well as access to education. This is a classic Latin American coup in another sense: General Romeo Vazquez, who led it, is an alumnus of the United States' School of the Americas (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation). The school is best known for producing Latin American officers who have committed major human rights abuses, including military coups.
The coup government has shot and killed peaceful demonstrators, closed TV and radio stations and arrested journalists. Two political activists have been murdered.
During the 1980s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency trained a military death squad -- the infamous battalion 316 -- that tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran political activists. The U.S. embassy looked the other way and the State Department doctored its annual human rights reports to omit these crimes.
President Obama has so far been silent about the coup government's violence and censorship. This silence is very unfortunate and difficult to explain. The repression may worsen if -- as expected -- current mediation efforts fail and Zelaya returns to Honduras.
Obama needs to show that the United States is different than in the past by supporting Zelaya's return not just with words, but action. Anything less will look like complicity in the eyes of the world, especially given the coup government's friends in high places.
This column was published in the Los Angeles Times on July 23, 2009.