Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Honduras today

Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya clash with soldiers near the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa on Monday.
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Dealing with the first Latin American crisis of his presidency, Barack Obama sought a swift, clear response that would not be interpreted as U.S. interventionism in a region that loathes it. So he condemned a coup in Honduras by turning to the most reliable of friends: democracy.

And is on the same side as Hugo Chávez: opposing the removal of Zelaya. Of course, their opinions differ: Mr. Chávez cast the dispute in Honduras as a wider rebellion by the region's poor against elites. Mr. Chávez threatened to "overthrow" Mr. Zelaya's replacement, Mr. Micheletti. In response, Mr. Micheletti told local Honduras radio: "Nobody scares us."


Mr. Obama found himself in the unusual situation of siding with Mr. Chávez to a point, describing the situation as a "coup" that was "illegal" and would set a "terrible precedent" were it allowed to stand.

Of course there is a lot of bluster and expressed indignity; yet the actions taken, or not taken, speak louder than the torrents of words. Ten Latin American countries agreed to withdraw their ambassadors from Honduras until Mr. Zelaya is returned to power. Perhaps that could be qualified as only ten.

Of course, right wing opinion in the US is indignant that the Administration is defending the concept of democracyt, rather than exulting in Zelaya's overthrow and exile. Mary Anastasia O'Grady, the WSJ Latin America opinionator, as right-wing as her paper's editorial board, condemns Secretary Clinton, lumping her with Fidel. First, some sarcasm, then, criticism.

Hugo Chávez's coalition-building efforts suffered a setback yesterday when the Honduran military sent its president packing for abusing the nation's constitution. It seems that President Mel Zelaya miscalculated when he tried to emulate the success of his good friend Hugo in reshaping the Honduran Constitution to his liking.

Mel? Perhaps Mary is a good friend of Manuel. Honduras, she states, is being pressured to restore the authoritarian Mr. Zelaya by the likes of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hillary Clinton and, of course, Hugo himself.

Mary concludes: The struggle against chavismo has never been about left-right politics. It is about defending the independence of institutions that keep presidents from becoming dictators. This crisis clearly delineates the problem. In failing to come to the aid of checks and balances, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Insulza expose their true colors.

True colors? [OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza] The US can not support an overthrow of an elected president; it is called diplomacy. Columnists don't need to exercise it, but nations do.

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More nuanced analysis does exist. Jose Raul Perales, a Latin American scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said Obama's response to the crisis was prompt and in unison with leaders of the hemisphere and beyond. Obama can bring considerable leverage to the matter and add credibility to an emerging regional response, he said.

But there are still bigger problems in Honduras — the failed democratic institutions that led the nation to resort to a military coup. The conflict came about after a referendum Zelaya had called in defiance of Honduras' courts and Congress, one seen as a way for him to stay in power beyond his term limit. That means even if Obama can help lead a brokered peace, deeper issues remain. "The tensions will persist regardless of the outcome," Perales said.

The fact remains that Zelaya was subverting democracy from within.

Isolation from the international community may not be enough to create cracks in Honduras's political establishment, which appeared to be solidly against Mr. Zelaya. But some analysts said his forced exile was a political mistake by his opponents. "Zelaya did not have overwhelming support to begin with," said John Carey, a Latin America expert at Dartmouth College. "Now the military has alienated every other country in that hemisphere."

More than the military is involved: the Congress and the Supreme Court, too.

Now, a question so far unanswered is: who is Manuel Zelaya?

Roberto Micheletti, a 63-year-old businessman and stalwart Liberal Party member, took the oath of office Sunday to replace another Liberal politician, Manuel Zelaya, 56, a rich rancher who was deposed in a predawn raid that day and exiled to Costa Rica.

A rich rancher? He, then, is part of the elite Hogo Chávez condemns.

Mr. Zelaya is a tall man who sports a trademark Stetson. He studied industrial engineering, but dropped out of college to manage his family's ranches. He served in Congress before running for president in 2006 on a populist platform that blasted the rich and promised to fight crime, corruption and poverty.

His family's ranches. And he blasted the rich?

Mr. Micheletti calls himself a "right-wing progressive" and says he is a good friend of the U.S., which he said has always helped Honduras. Mr. Micheletti has served in political and party posts in five Liberal governments.

Right-wing progressive is indeed a curious phrase.

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