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 the country in the middle of the night set off political alarms for leaders in other Latin American states. 

South American countries such as Brazil and Chile have long battled military rule, and their presidents were in no mood to consider any ambiguity in this case. They feared that any mixed signal could embolden the region's militaries, which had thankfully returned to the barracks after years in political power. José Miguel Insulza, the Chilean secretary general of the OAS had himself been forced into exile by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s. In the weeks following the coup, Insulza said that the situation in Honduras reminded him of Guatemala's 1954 coup, the backdrop of perhaps the most tragic episode in recent Latin American history. 

And then there is Chávez. Since his election three years ago, Zelaya had led his country into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a coalition of nine Latin American and Caribbean countries directed by Chávez (and financed by Venezuela's oil resources) with the goal of curtailing U.S. influence in Latin America. Zelaya's removal was a significant political loss for Chávez and a sharp blow to his plan of extending regional influence. In addition, the coup conformed with Chávez's ideology, in which the Latin American right wing -- or what he calls the "squalid oligarchy" of traditional economic and political elites -- would not tolerate leftist governments. Lastly, in an ironic twist, it enabled Chávez, who, in 1992, attempted a military coup against an elected Venezuelan government, to claim the moral high ground by criticizing the Honduran military's actions.  
From the outset, the Obama administration showed a desire to condemn such a flagrant unconstitutional act. President Barack Obama called Zelaya's ouster "not legal" and said that it set a "terrible precedent." Such statements were intended to repair the damage to U.S. credibility in Latin America, which was hurt most especially by the Bush administration's undisguised delight when Chávez was temporarily ousted by a coup in 2002 (and then, to Washington's apparent dismay, returned to power). The coup in Honduras offered the United States the opportunity to reform its former posture, a gesture that was welcomed throughout the region. 

Although all members of the OAS supported the group's ultimatum -- either reinstate Zelaya or face expulsion from the organization -- it was the Chávez-led ALBA countries that had the clearest agenda and seemed to drive the region's politics. In an especially theatrical moment, a Chávez-supplied airplane carrying Zelaya was denied approval to land in Honduras in the days after the coup. 

In the end, although the confrontational approach taken by the OAS may have sent a firm message, it proved fruitless; if anything, it only served to stiffen the resistance of the de facto government in Tegucigalpa. Political consensus failed to dislodge an isolated government determined to thwart Zelaya's return, resulting in an impasse. Few countries in Latin America have historically been more susceptible to U.S. influence than Honduras, and the fact that it has now withstood such pressure against it is an embarrassment to the United States as well as the OAS. Both may have underestimated the depth of bitterness in Honduras toward Zelaya and the determination to keep him out of the country. 
Without a clear resolution, the crisis moved to a negotiation phase, which plays to the Obama administration's taste for pragmatism and measured steps. The United States was the only government to leave its ambassador in place in Tegucigalpa, and, out of concern for triggering sanctions that would further harm an already beleaguered nation, U.S. officials avoided using the word "coup." 

Washington took the lead in getting Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate the dispute. He has since developed the San José Accord, which calls for the reinstatement of Zelaya, albeit with considerably reduced authority, and new elections in October. But some sectors that are influential in Honduras' de facto government -- namely, powerful business and economic groups -- are profoundly mistrustful of Zelaya, whom they fear had plans to model their country after Chávez's political project in Venezuela. They are also skeptical of assurances of international supervision to transition smoothly to another elected government.  

As no clear resolution to the situation emerges, speculation is growing that the de facto government may simply let the clock run out on Zelaya's truncated term until November, when it will hold elections without him and hope that Honduras will be able to restore its diplomatic and economic standing. 

In the meantime, attention has increasingly turned to Washington. The Obama administration continues to insist on Zelaya's return. It has applied some pressure on the de facto government, revoking the visas of four high-level officials. Washington also backs the OAS mission to Honduras, a group of seven foreign ministers of OAS countries and Insulza, which has traveled to Tegucigalpa to pressure the government to accept the San José Accord.  But some see a softening of the U.S. stance, as reflected in State Department statements that allude to Zelaya's own role in provoking the crisis.  

In the United States, the issue has acquired a partisan cast reminiscent of sentiments during the Cold War. Many Republicans question the Obama administrations support for Zelaya.  They are troubled by his close ties to Chávez, who faces renewed accusations of supporting the insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They stress Zelaya's dubious democratic credentials and erratic behavior over the years. Many Democrats, however, counter that to let the coup stand would make a mockery of the United States' commitment to democracy. They also point to allegations of arbitrary detentions and restrictions on the press that have been leveled against the de facto government.   

The controversy has proved costly for the United States' Latin American policy, holding up congressional confirmations of Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Tom Shannon, ambassador to Brazil. More broadly, the fallout from the coup has made the region seem more like an area of conflict over basic values than one ripe for enhanced inter-American cooperation.

The Obama administration, then, is caught between two voices: one in Latin America (and from some within Obama's own party) that is pushing for increased pressure on the de facto government, and another from within the United States that argues that backing Zelaya is not the way to restore the country's democratic credibility. This has created a historical incongruity among Latin Americans, who have traditionally called for the United States to act less unilaterally and be less interventionist. "It is important to note the irony that the people that were complaining about the U.S. interfering in Latin America are now complaining that we are not interfering enough," Obama said in early August. In this way, he implicitly acknowledged the limits of U.S. power to turn back the clock in Honduras. "I can't press a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya," he said. 

It is still conceivable that Zelaya could return to power under a heavily conditioned agreement and with perhaps impossibly exquisite orchestration. But it seems likely that Honduras will proceed with elections in November and look ahead to the next government that will take over in January 2010. Washington would then confront the dilemma of whether to support an election process overseen by a government it deems illegitimate. Refusing to do so could prolong the crisis and would inflict greater pain in the form of diplomatic isolation and reduced aid flows.  In the end, policies based on realism are likely to prevail, and the United States will recognize the new government, provided the elections are credible. Whatever happens in Honduras, the costs of the ongoing crisis to the Obama administration could turn out to be far from negligible.



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  • MICHAEL SHIFTER is Vice President for Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
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