Administration took the lead in Honduras crisis only after OAS failed

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 11, 2009 

WASHINGTON--The day after soldiers raided Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's house and bundled him, still in his pajamas, out of the country, President Barack Obama stood with Colombia's visiting leader at the White House and branded the act an illegal coup.

But across town just a few hours earlier, Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had delivered a more cautious assessment. The standoff in Honduras had "evolved into a coup," Clinton said. Asked if the United States was insisting on Zelaya's return to power, she replied: "We haven't laid out any demands that we are insisting on."

The mixed messages from Washington on June 29 reflected the messy problem that Obama and Clinton had on their hands following Latin America's first military move against a civilian government in recent years.

Zelaya was no friend of the United States, having allied himself with a group of left-leaning populists led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He'd run roughshod over the Honduran constitution and defied the country's Supreme Court and other institutions in pushing a referendum designed to offer him another term in office. And Honduras' military hadn't seized power but immediately turned government over to a de facto president, Roberto Michelleti.

The crisis in Honduras, a poor Central American country of about 7 million, posed an early test of Obama's pledge to seek more cooperative ties with Latin America.

Even after its initial hesitation, the Obama administration studiously avoided a heavy-handed intervention that would make the United States itself an issue in a region where memories of U.S. meddling are long and deep, according to U.S. officials, diplomats and analysts.

U.S. opposition to the coup hardened as the crisis went on, but Washington waited for consensus to develop and tried to work through international organizations, in this case the Organization of American States.

"The U.S. basically joined the consensus" in the hemisphere that a coup had occurred, said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

That careful, consensus-building style is rapidly becoming a hallmark of Obama's crisis diplomacy in places as far-flung as Iran and North Korea.

In fact, the search for consensus and deference to the OAS didn't work in Honduras. On Tuesday, the U.S. took charge and set up a mediation process led by former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

The flashpoint for the Honduras crisis came June 25, when Zelaya and his supporters marched to a Honduran military base and seized thousands of ballots for the referendum, which would rescind term limits and allow him to run for re-election. By that point, the Supreme Court and the country's top electoral tribunal had already ruled the plan illegal, and most of the country's institutions were against it.

Three days later, Zelaya was ousted and exiled.

The White House decision publicly to oppose the coup, despite Zelaya's politics and ties to Chavez, set Obama apart from his immediate predecessor. President George W. Bush was widely seen as encouraging a 2002 coup attempt against Chavez, leaving the United States embarrassed when that attempt fizzled.

Obama's stance was "a unique break from the past," given regional perceptions of Bush's actions seven years earlier, said a senior Latin American diplomat. He requested anonymity to speak more frankly.

OAS leaders flew to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on July 3, but refused to meet Micheletti or his representatives on the grounds that this would legitimize their power grab. A day later, the OAS voted to suspend Honduras from its membership.

On July 5, Zelaya attempted to fly back to Honduras in an airplane provided by Chavez, giving live interviews to Chavez's cable network from the air, while a second airplane carrying Insulza and the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay trailed behind. Honduran troops blocked the airport runway, preventing Zelaya's aircraft from landing.

U.S. officials said they had warned Zelaya against trying to force his way back to Honduras. The aerial farce forced the Obama administration to get directly involved in the search for a diplomatic solution.

Obama's handling of the crisis has angered U.S. conservatives, including some on Capitol Hill. It has, they complain, aligned Washington with Chavez and his fellow leftist leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua who were helping Zelaya undermine Honduras' fragile democracy. Their outrage heightened after the OAS's July 4 vote to suspend Honduras.

"We have played into the hands of the most anti-democratic forces in the region," said Adolfo Franco, a U.S. Agency for International Development official during the Bush administration. He spoke at a forum sponsored by the Council of the Americas.

The Latin American diplomat disagreed. He rejected the argument that because Chavez and his alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) also demanded the Honduras coup be reversed, that's "a reason (for the United States and others) not to call a spade a spade."

U.S. officials say that, given regional sensitivities, they had little choice but to work through the OAS, which invoked an eight-year old charter calling for the suspension of member nations where democracy had been interrupted.

"A lot of people would have liked to see us intervene more" so they could raise the red flag of U.S. "imperialism," said a senior State Department official, who was not authorized to speak for the record.

One idea discussed was for a small group of countries--a so-called "Group of Friends"--to mediate. But getting agreement about its composition was a high hurdle, and the idea was discarded in favor of a single mediator. Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the natural choice

Clinton appears to have played a key role in getting both Zelaya and Micheletti to accept Arias. Her aides met quietly with Micheletti representatives, even as U.S. spokesmen denounced the coup.

The senior U.S. official said the U.S. role in the crisis showed an "important shift," in which the United States will not automatically intervene muscularly.

"It doesn't mean we're the equal of Paraguay. We've obviously a big player in the region," the official said. "But we're not the only one."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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