The stakes for the United States in the Honduran political crisis are higher than ever. At the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the unprecedented overturning of a coup through dialogue. That assessment has now proved naïve, and the State Department finds itself in the awkward position of distancing itself from the rest of Latin America after saying it would recognize the Honduran elections whether or not Manuel Zelaya is restored to power. This crisis is an extremely important moment for Honduras, but it also now has the potential to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to mend the United States’ relationship with Latin America.
Since President Obama took office, his administration has worked hard to heal the wounds left by President George W. Bush in Latin America. Obama’s most symbolic moves came with respect to Cuba, as he condoned the island nation’s re-admission into the Organization of American States (OAS)—long a rallying cry of the OAS’s other members—and eased the terms of the embargo. Obama has also toned down the rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, cutting away at Hugo Chávez’ platform for America-bashing. Whereas President Bush seemed to court confrontation in the region, the Obama administration has thus far sought compromise and consensus. These efforts have not radically altered U.S. policy, but they have represented significant first steps toward repairing relations with Latin America.
Before last week, the United States had also marched in step with the rest of the Americas in its response to Honduras’ June 28th coup. The United States supported the OAS’s denunciation of the coup, suspended aid to Honduras and visas to leaders of the de facto regime and continually demanded the restitution of President Manuel Zelaya. Until late October, the U.S. assiduously avoided taking the lead on the Honduras issue, instead abiding by regional consensus and making sure not to stoke the flames with Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) nations. State Department representative Thomas Shannon’s deal-making visit to Honduras also built directly on the work of the OAS and Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, assuring that the fleeting victory was shared by all partners.
But then the deal broke down. Roberto Micheletti insisted that the agreement did not guarantee Zelaya’s restitution—a strict reading of the text reveals that he is right—while Zelaya insisted it did. This would have been a moot point if international pressure had remained strong enough to convince the Honduran Congress that it needed to restore Zelaya to power. The agreement began to unravel, however, because it established a deadline for creating a unity government without imposing a deadline on the Honduran Congress’ determination on Zelaya’s restitution. Whether Shannon did not realize the importance of placing a deadline—which is hard to believe—or simply wanted to do anything necessary to quickly reach an agreement, this omission could now prove extremely costly for both Honduran democracy and the United States’ position in Latin America.
Shannon compounded the error when he declared in a CNN interview that the signing of the agreement assured that the U.S. would recognize the elections whether or not Zelaya was reinstated. This was the moment when the U.S. first strayed from its Latin American neighbors in handling the crisis, and it took the pressure off of the Honduran Congress to reinstate Zelaya.
The State Department had an obvious reason for wanting to wash its hands of the Honduran crisis as quickly as possible. Certain conservative Republicans—most notably, Senator Jim DeMint—have been a constant headache for Obama since the coup, defending Micheletti’s assumption of power as a “constitutional succession.” DeMint has exercised leverage by holding up two of Obama’s Latin America appointments—Arturo Valenzuela and Thomas Shannon himself—to prove his point, and the State Department used its promise of recognizing the election to get DeMint to relent.
But the State Department jumped the gun, and the Obama administration now finds itself having strayed from its Latin American neighbors. While Shannon declared the United States’ intention to recognize the elections, the countries of the Río Group demanded Zelaya’s immediate restitution. Meanwhile, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza conditioned OAS support on full compliance with the agreement, and he has now rejected Micheletti’s self-proclaimed “unity” government. This means that the OAS election observation team is now on hold, while the U.S. position remains unclear.
The State Department has now placed itself in an unenviable position. If it sticks to the position laid out by Shannon, it will risk alienating the Latin American countries that have vociferously demanded Zelaya’s restitution. And if it backtracks from Shannon’s declaration, conservative Republicans will wreak havoc in Washington. Simply put, if the Honduran crisis is not resolved before the November 29th elections, the Obama administration will not come out unscathed.
The State Department should be willing to risk conservatives’ ire, however, because the first scenario would create much bigger and long-term problem for President Obama. If the United States recognizes the elections without Zelaya’s restitution, it could undermine much of the work President Obama has done—and the goodwill he has developed—in the region in his first nine months. It could also provide cover for other countries, such as Panama, to defect from the regional consensus. Such defections would provoke intra-regional discord and undermine what, until now, has been a strong defense of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in response to the Honduran coup. This would be deeply unfortunate for the region as a whole. It would also undermine the Obama administration’s avowed support for multilateralism and mutual respect in Latin America and provide fodder for anti-American rhetoric in Caracas and Managua.
It remains unclear whether the State Department will see the light. Already, spokesman Ian Kelly has criticized both sides for the failure to form a unity government, but the State Department has not retracted the position laid out by Thomas Shannon. On Saturday, The New York Times called for Shannon’s hasty return to Honduras, but at least as important will be pressure from the agreement’s Verification Commission—which includes former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis—on Micheletti and the Honduran Congress to reinstate Zelaya. If the Verification Commission adopts a strong stance, this could provide the State Department with the necessary cover to condition its support for the elections on good-faith compliance with the agreements.
Whatever happens, U.S. intervention in Honduras backfired. In a rush to get a deal signed, the State Department prematurely took pressure off of the Micheletti regime and made Zelaya’s restitution—never a certainty—less likely. The United States cannot afford to compound this error. The State Department must be willing, again, to take a strong stand against the Honduran coup, or it will jeopardize President Obama’s policy goals in the region.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.