WASHINGTON — When the ousted president of Honduras hit Washington this week demanding a return to power, he got meetings with a White House adviser and a top U.S. diplomat.
To be sure, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already had condemned the coup d'etat that ejected President Manuel Zelaya from his Central American nation. However, the second-tier meetings signaled the new administration's cautious and nuanced management of its first full-blown crisis in Latin America.
Rather than taking the lead, the White House has chosen to defer to the Organization of American States, allowing it to steer an effort to orchestrate a restoration of "democratic order" in Honduras, a move that analysts say might enhance U.S. credibility in a region that's long viewed Washington's intervention with suspicion.
"The situation offers a clear opportunity to reposition U.S. policy from being for or against parties and candidates in Latin America to being solidly supportive of the democratic process," said Robert Pastor, an American University professor and former director of Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the National Security Council.
The approach has its critics, particularly conservatives, who note that the left-leaning Zelaya — who's friendly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — was himself attempting to subvert the democratic process by trying to secure another term. The Washington Times editorialized against the approach Thursday, saying that the United States needs to "stem the anti-American tide being led by Venezuela."
Some conservatives have accused the OAS — which cited its Inter-American Democratic Charter in condemning the ouster — of hypocrisy, noting that many member states balked at referencing the charter last month when they sought to bring Cuba back into the organization.
"We have basically taken the Zelaya line, the (OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel) Insulza line, the Chavez line, and we haven't established anything that looks to my mind like an independent position," said Ray Walser, a veteran Foreign Service officer and senior policy analyst on Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center. "We've abandoned leadership in exchange for getting along."
However, Peter Hakim, the president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, a research center on Western Hemisphere affairs, said that the region, after shedding a history of military dictatorships, demanded an unambiguous response to such a military show of force.
"Given the fact you have so many leaders in Latin America today who really suffered, personally, politically, in the coups in the '70s, this is a painful throwback," he said. "Shipping the elected leader of a country off to an airport and into another country is just a bright line you can't cross these days. It's a bit much for Latin America to take."
Essentially, the challenge to U.S. diplomacy is to make it clear that regime change through a coup d'etat is unacceptable in a region rattled by years of military rule, while acknowledging discomfort with leftist leaders' attempts to tinker with their constitutions in ways that could weaken democracy.
The crisis comes at a time of transition for Latin American diplomacy. Tom Shannon, President George W. Bush's assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, has been appointed the ambassador to Brazil. The Senate has yet to confirm his replacement, Arturo Valenzuela.
Senior administration officials appeared this week to be relying on diplomacy — and the threat of isolation by the OAS — to bring about a solution. The United States is calling for Zelaya's "unconditional return" to office — as is the OAS — but senior administration officials left open the possibility that the "tinderbox" created by weeks of political instability could force a revision of Zelaya's presidential powers.
"In the course of fashioning this restoration, the OAS is also going to have to address the broader issue of governability within a system that has been badly damaged," an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said in a background briefing.
Some analysts suggest that a failure to back Zelaya fully could encourage coup plotters in Honduras.
"As a matter of principal," said Mark Weisbrot, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, "if you support democracy, you shouldn't be using a coup as a means of attracting concessions from the elected president."
(Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami.)
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