President Obama is headed for a headache as hopes for a democratic resolution of the crisis in Honduras fade. If deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who was democratically elected in 2005, is not soon restored to power in this U.S.-dependent Central American country, a popular rebellion is inevitable. Civil war may ensue.
Latin America analysts fear more coups will be attempted by extremist forces in Guatemala, Ecuador and Bolivia, given Washington’s appearance of tacit acceptance of the coup..
The initial positive reaction by President Obama gathered by denouncing the coup has withered away as the coup government thumbs its nose at the world, closes down media outlets, and violently represses protesters.
However reluctantly, Washington, D.C., is at the center of this dilemma because of this country’s decades-old intimate ties with Honduras’s elite. At the recent summit between Mexico, the United States and Canada, Obama decried critics who advocate a more aggressive U.S. policy to restore President Zelaya to power. Obama stated, “…the same forces that decry U.S. intervention in Latin America now want us to intervene in Honduras. They can’t have it both ways…”
But classifying calls for this country to honor its own policies as intervention is wrong. No one wants U.S. troops or proxy forces to march in. The president’s critics are accurate in that he has only partially/belatedly enforced laws that mandate cutting off aid to countries that overthrow elected governments.
Laughably, our State Department still hasn’t declared that a coup occurred, leaving us isolated in the world with a “half-coup” policy. The Organization of American States, the UN and European Union among others have taken clearer and tougher positions toward the two-month-old political-military dictatorship.
In practice, the soft Obama policy of backing Costa Rica President Oscar Arias’s feeble brokering efforts has given the coupist-government breathing space to outlast Zelaya’s backers. Indeed, the de facto effect of Obama’s policy enables the coupist-government to play out the clock until November, when a blatant cooked “demonstration” election will keep a rump government in power.
Already Brazil, Mexico and Colombia have stated they will not support any Honduran “government” that results from the “demonstration” elections.
There are several implications if the situation continues to deteriorate. Fraying relations between the U.S. and Latin America will accelerate downward, even more so if coups are attempted in other countries.
The Honduran “street” is radicalizing. Before the coup, President Zelaya had low approval ratings. Today he is the hero of a growing movement that recently mobilized 300,000 protesters. if the coup continues, armed rebellion will begin. Dictatorships lead to massive refugee flows. Already there are reports of rebel training camps along the Honduras-Nicaragua border.
President Obama can ill afford another disappointment among U.S. Latinos now that he has postponed immigration reform till next year.
What explains President Obama’s misplay?
First, he was occupied with the domestic economic crisis and the Middle East. Second, his initial, mostly-correct attitude towards the coup was soon modified by a State Department lukewarm toward President Zelaya.
In essence, U.S. reluctance to squeeze out the Honduran “coupists” reflects concerns over revolutionary trends in Latin America that deposed Zelaya agreed with.
This is a serious strategic mistake that will haunt Mr. Obama if not corrected soon. No matter what one thinks of the civic revolutions in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and until recently Honduras, they are democratically elected, non-violent and popular, representing long-held yearnings for change.
Obama should engage with Latin America’s efforts to develop itself through home-grown, alternative models. No serious analysis can defend U.S.-inspired western economic policies that have so clearly failed to provide progress for Latin America’s 400 million-strong population over the last generation.
How can Obama right his course? Simple, He should receive President Zelaya publicly — something he has yet to do, State should declare a coup has occurred and immediately cut off all aid to the de-facto government, seize its U.S. assets, and together with close allies (Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru) issue a public deadline to the coup-ists to step down from power now and receive amnesty. If not, announce that sooner or later its conspirators will be tried for crimes for which they are patently guilty.
The coup-ists will turn tail in weeks, Hondurans and Latin Americans will breathe a sigh of relief and President Obama will be lauded for leading the pursuit of democracy and justice.