Honduras shows Latin America's 'strongman' is Jim DeMint

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican known for his efforts to influence domestic immigration and health-care issues, has scored a foreign-policy coup by helping to compel the Obama administration to shift its stance on strife-ridden Honduras.

After demanding for months that deposed Honduran President Mel Zelaya be restored to power, senior State Department officials now say they'll accept the outcome of Nov. 29 elections in the Central American country even if Zelaya doesn't reclaim his post.

"We support the elections process there," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday. "We have provided technical assistance. ... These elections will be important to restoring Democratic and constitutional order in Honduras."

That position is a marked change from the tough stance President Barack Obama took in the days following the June 28 removal of Zelaya, when Honduran soldiers launched a dawn raid and whisked him away in his pajamas.

"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there," Obama said the day after Zelaya's ouster.

DeMint, by contrast, cited a Honduran Supreme Court ruling, later approved by the Honduran Congress, that the military had followed constitutional provisions in removing Zelaya and installing Roberto Micheletti as interim president.

While the U.S. government froze aid and took other punitive steps, DeMint held up two State Department nominations all summer and into the fall.

Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of Americas, a New York-based organization of international businesses, said DeMint has had a major impact on the Obama administration's evolving response to the Honduran strife.

"DeMint's role has been disproportionate to his interest in Latin America," Sabatini said. "He chose to take a stand on this, and he plunged headlong into it. He drew a line in the sand."

In August, a report by the nonpartisan Library of Congress concurred with DeMint, saying that Zelaya's ouster was legal, though it said Honduran soldiers had overstepped the law in secreting him out of the country.

Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, snuck back into Honduras on Sept. 21. He's holed up in the Brazilian Embassy there, sleeping on a couch, wearing his trademark Stetson, giving interviews and greeting various dignitaries.

DeMint, the only senator to have visited Honduras during the crisis, stopped blocking the U.S. diplomatic posts on Nov. 5. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given him her word that the United States would no longer insist on Zelaya's return to power, a claim Clinton aides haven't disputed.

"I'm very thankful that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have finally taken the side of the Honduran people and have committed to letting them choose their own future," DeMint told McClatchy on Saturday.

Zelaya accused the U.S. leaders of abandoning him.

"They have left us in the middle of the river, saying now that their priority is the elections and not the restoration of democracy," Zelaya said Friday on a Costa Rican radio station.

While DeMint's opposition played a key role in forcing the U.S. policy shift, he got a big assist from Zelaya.

At the time of his removal, Zelaya was seeking to annul a constitutional clause limiting the president to a single term and to hold a referendum on the change.

When lawmakers refused to support the referendum, Zelaya imported ballots from Chavez, the flamboyant anti-American Venezuelan leader with whom he'd earlier concluded a major oil-import deal at discounted prices.

Once ensconced in the Brazilian Embassy, the deposed Zelaya said "Israeli mercenaries" were trying to kill him with poison gas and described broad conspiracies behind his ouster. He later apologized for the claim about Israel.

Latin America experts who know Zelaya say it's hardly an understatement to call him eccentric.

"He has no ideological or intellectual convictions whatsoever," said Sabatini, the analyst at the Council of Americas.

"His ideology has always been a melange of strange theories pulled from odd places that have no coherence and no bearing on reality," Sabatini said. "What he got from Chavez is oil and money. He was bought and paid for by Chavez."

As part of a broader effort to reverse President George W. Bush's often unilateral foreign policy, Obama has tried to mend fences with Chavez, even shaking hands with him at their first meeting in April.

Chavez, who called Bush "the devil" in 2006, has praised Obama while continuing to attack U.S. influence in Latin America.

In his new venture into international affairs, DeMint, entering the last year of his first Senate term, has reprised the role of the late Sen. Jesse Helms.

From his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms, a North Carolina Republican, would dispatch aides and occasionally travel himself on unannounced foreign trips to meet with anti-Communist governments and groups.

Before his visit to Honduras in early October, DeMint used Helms' tactic of blocking White House nominations to effect change.

DeMint, who sits on the foreign relations panel, put holds on Obama's choices of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and Tom Shannon to be ambassador to Brazil.

Shannon, a Bush administration holdover, previously held the senior State Department post for which the Senate confirmed Valenzuela on Nov. 5 after DeMint lifted his hold. Other Republican senators now are blocking a vote on Shannon in a separate dispute over Obama's policy toward Cuba.

In Honduras, neither Zelaya nor Micheletti are on the Nov. 29 ballot, but their political parties have leading candidates.

Zelaya's insistence that he be restored to power is partly symbolic since his term ends in three months, but his earlier attempts to extend his tenure spur doubts that he would leave office quietly.

Under a U.S.-brokered accord last month, Zelaya would stop urging his followers to boycott the Nov. 29 elections and would work with Micheletti to form a "national unity government."

The accord doesn't guarantee that Zelaya would be restored to power, but in recent days he's accused the United States of reneging on secret assurances he claims to have received from Washington.

Obama's break with Zelaya is at odds with the views of some Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, called for Zelaya's return to power Thursday after a three-day visit to Honduras.

Schakowsky said she'd seen widespread evidence of human-rights abuses under Micheletti, including the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters and a clampdown on Honduran journalists.

"I myself was filmed as I left the 1/8Brazilian3/8 embassy by a uniformed soldier in a ski mask," Schakowsky told reporters in a conference call from Miami International Airport.

Schakowsky said she'd met with Zelaya, who "was very calm and upbeat and did not seem agitated or tense in any way despite the number of weeks he's been inside the Brazilian Embassy."

More than 240 professors and Latin America scholars from around the country Wednesday sent Obama a letter denouncing "the innumerable and grave human rights abuses committed by the coup government in Honduras."

State Department spokesman Kelly on Thursday deflected questions from reporters asking about the alleged abuses.

"I'm just not aware of those reports," Kelly said. "I think that we would need to have more details about it for us to really comment."

(Tyler Bridges in Caracas, Venezuela, and Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this article.)

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