Obama's Honduras Problem

The United States and Latin America After the Coup

A soldier fires tear gas during a protest by supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya, outside the National Congress in Tegucigalpa, August 12, 2009. Edgard Garrido / Reuters

For the better part of June, Honduras was near the bottom of the list of concerns when the United States looked south. But then, on June 28, the country's military forcibly removed José Manuel Zelaya, a democratically elected president. To be sure, Zelaya had attempted an unconstitutional power grab, but whatever questions may surround his rule, Zelaya's ouster by the armed forces bore the features of a coup, an all-too-familiar scene in Latin American history.  

No one could have predicted that Honduras, the third-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, would test the Obama administration's posture toward Latin America, its commitment to multilateralism, and its overarching policy on democracy.  
So far, the United States has steered a cautious middle course that seeks to combine taking a principled stand with relying on more pragmatic negotiation. It is a characteristic Obama approach -- but in this case it risks conveying weakness and ambivalence to all sides. The question, then, is whether the Obama administration could have reduced the risk by being more actively engaged. Perhaps. A less punitive stance toward the de facto government at the outset of the crisis may have better prepared a path for restoring democratic rule. 

The international reaction to the coup was swift and harsh, with unanimous condemnation followed by calls from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) to return Zelaya to power. It was an instructive lesson to the Obama administration about the evolution of the region's political dynamic, as it revealed the delicate balance between military and political interests throughout the region -- not to mention the forceful role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. 
The Honduras crisis touched a nerve throughout much of Latin America, but not because, as some analysts have contended, Zelaya's ouster was the region's first coup in several decades. (The removal of Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad in 2000 met the definition, although it elicited virtually no regional response.) Rather, the image of 200 military officials taking an elected president out of

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