In Washington this week, Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president of Honduras, is telling his side of the story of what led to his removal from the presidency on June 28. He blames the oligarchy and their clients for conspiring to topple him. He is pressing hard for more punitive sanctions and deeper U.S. intervention to force his return to presidential power. Zelaya and his backers want to make restoring him to office a test case for support for democracy by the Obama Administration in the Americas and around the world.
“If they [the Obama Administration] can’t get the cast of characters in Honduras to behave the way they want them to, how are they going to deal with Afghanistan or Iran?” Latin American expert Julia E. Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times.
Members of the current government in Honduras tell a quite different story. On June 28, they acted to protect the fundamentals of the Honduran constitution against runaway and illegal executive excess. They also felt they were standing up to Zelaya’s accomplice and paymaster Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Because they stoutly defend the legality of their actions and deeply fear Zelaya’s return will polarize Honduras and push it to the brink of civil war, they have resisted fierce international pressure and risked significant international sanctions.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Zelaya today she needs to stress that reconciliation and the protection of constitutional democracy not Zelaya’s personal vindication or return to power are the primary U.S. objectives. Making free, fair, internationally-supervised elections in November the end point for the political crisis is a must.
The Secretary should avoid an official State Department designation of the events of June 28 as a “coup,” a legalistic decision that will trigger deeper aid cutoffs thus hurting the Honduran poor and damaging U.S. interests.
Zelaya’s problem is a Honduran one. It must be settled by the Hondurans, not by Washington, Caracas, or the Organization of American States. The Secretary’s job is to do no further harm, not to, as Ms. Sweig seems to recommend, score points by backing Zelaya and making “the cast of characters in Honduras behave.”