Secretary of State Clinton’s meeting today with deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was intended to show the support—visibly—of the United States for a return to the status quo ante, but it also served a more important purpose: by getting Zelaya on board with the idea of allowing Costa Rica’s President and Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias to mediate the constitutional crisis, the United States buys time to consider all appropriate options and actions. Cooler heads can now prevail, because we’ll presumably be spared additional acts of the theater of the absurd that saw Zelaya circling high above Tegucigalpa with a camera crew from Venezuela’s TeleSur on board and a number of other regional actors on a chase plane in tow. Repeated attempts to return would have been polarizing and unhelpful, potentially adding to the violence on the ground. And really, do Hondurans of any political stripe need to be lectured about the practice of democracy by the Presidents of Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, or Argentina?
Now, everyone can take a deep breath and attempt to resolve the crisis away from the Tegucigalpa tinderbox.
That includes the United States. A number of loud voices have already been heard urging that the United States should attempt to isolate Honduras, cutting off trade, aid, education, military, and other benefits beyond the pause that has already been announced. Others suggest that individuals in the de facto Honduran government should have their U.S. visas yanked. Some even go so far (quietly) as to suggest that Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans living in the United States should be suspended to pressure the Honduran economy through reduced remittances and the forced return of migrants.
Such actions would miss their intended target—the de facto government—and be ill-advised. Why? Because, by definition, the crisis should be resolved no later than January 29, when the new president, elected on November 29 (if not before—see my earlier blog post) takes office. And then neither Zelaya nor acting President Roberto Micheletti would be in the Presidencia. Under a general amnesty, life moves on and the whole sorry episode recedes to history.
If the United States over-reacts by putting sanctions on the country and its individuals this will then prove difficult to unwind. It’s one thing, for example, to suspend Honduras from the Organization of American States (if not a bit curious that those who sat in judgment of Honduras such as Nicaragauan Presdient Daniel Ortega are themselves democratically-challenged). It’s quite another to reduce or cut aid to the hemisphere’s third poorest nation after Haiti and Bolivia. After all, those who get hit at that point are the most impoverished, but as has been proven time and time again (Cuba, anyone, or Haiti?) economic sanctions can hurt a country but will tend to have little impact on an unyielding government determined to remain in power. And when the Honduras government changes, early next year if not before, sanctions will have caused a serious rethink among Hondurans who are traditionally close to the United States, and will also have pinched Honduras’ economy, giving the new government an even more difficult chore in restoring Honduras to political health and economic growth. That’s one sure way to ensure that we get off on the wrong foot with the new government.
Now, with the Arias mediation effort, we have the opportunity to see how the situation evolves, and to craft our policy responses accordingly.
In fact, it’s possible that that no additional steps will be necessary, because the initiative for outside mediation provides the best opportunity for Hondurans to resolve this crisis, which they likely would not be able to do on their own given intensive national polarization. President Arias is a skilled mediator and negotiator, and is recognized and respected for his abilities. With the active support of the international community, he stands a real chance of success.
Finally, a thought. For all the anti-U.S. rhetoric and actions that Zelaya took before he was bundled off to Costa Rica in the middle of the night, it’s interesting that when push came to shove, he decided that the road for his return to Tegucigalpa went through Washington, not Caracas, Buenos Aires, or Brasilia. Surely, despite our detractors and their enablers in the think tank community, that says a thing or two about continued U.S. regional influence?
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.
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