Three months ago, at the conclusion of the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, anti-American leftist leaders across Latin America were optimistically embracing President Obama’s commitment to a new “spirit of cooperation” with the region. But soon after the onset of the Honduran political crisis, what was heralded as a “renewed partnership of the Americas” appeared to be quickly unraveling. Less than an hour after the Honduran army descended on the presidential residency and whisked Manuel Zelaya away to Costa Rica in his pajamas, Hugo Chávez was already accusing the “Yankee empire” of having a hand in the ouster. Later that same day, Obama issued the following statement:
“I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
Obama’s response was carefully worded. In calling for all actors to adhere to democratic norms and the rule of law, he made thinly veiled indictments of both the ousted president and the de facto government. But the administration’s main objective must be to ensure the security and wellbeing of the Honduran people – who are now faced with restricted trade, suspended aid, and deepening isolation – and that goal will be most easily reached through compromise. The precision of Obama’s language has made his position on two aspects of the crisis very clear – that both sides are partially at fault and that the conflict must conclude with a peacefully negotiated agreement.
The Honduran crisis comes as a sudden reminder of the fragility of Latin America’s original banana republic. Seventy percent of the population is mired in poverty, making Honduras the poorest of the 18 countries studied in a 2008 UN report on poverty and social exclusion in Latin America. Zelaya seemed committed to reversing this trend by shaping policies to close the gap between the rich and the poor, most notably with a substantial minimum wage increase. But while his social programs were viewed favorably by most, his steady drift to the left concerned the country’s conservative elite, especially as he began to align himself more and more with Chávez’s authoritarian socialist bloc. The tension boiled over when Zelaya – blatantly defying the ruling of Congress and the Supreme Court – planned to hold a referendum for a constitutional convention in an attempt to lift presidential term limits. Acting fully in accordance with the Honduran Constitution, the Supreme Court ordered the army to arrest Zelaya. In this respect, the grievances against Zelaya are valid. In fact, if the military had simply arrested Zelaya and allowed him to await trial in a Honduran prison, its actions would have been constitutional and (presumably) internationally justifiable. But by forcing him into exile, the interim government and its leader, Roberto Micheletti, broke the law and have thus lost legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Even the Honduran army has since acknowledged that Zelaya’s expulsion was illegal.
Obama’s measured response to the crisis recognized the two sides’ shared culpability and also made it clear that the U.S. would not take a dominant role in the negotiations. So, falling into stride with the rest of the OAS, he called on Costa Rican President Oscar Arias – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his role in ending Central American civil wars – to mediate the talks. But on Wednesday, the negotiations were postponed yet again and the two sides remain locked in a stalemate. Arias’ proposed seven-point plan, which Zelaya approved, would establish a national unity government and grant amnesty for all political crimes. The sticking point was Arias’ insistence – in accordance with the demands of the international community – that Zelaya be reinstated until his term ends in January, even if with “significantly limited powers.” Micheletti’s interim government called any plan that would reinstate the deposed President “unacceptable.” Zelaya has pledged to return to Tegucigalpa this Friday despite Micheletti’s standing threat to arrest him upon his arrival. When the military prevented a Venezuelan-provided plane with Zelaya on board from landing on July 5th, at least one protester was killed and dozens were injured. Another attempt would almost certainly incite more bloodshed, which Arias fears could eventually escalate into a civil war.
Ultimately, all sides must act in the best interest of the Honduran people. In the end, the most peaceful – and most likely – outcome will be very similar to Arias’ proposed resolution, including the establishment of a unity government with some degree of reduced presidential powers. Zelaya will be permitted to serve out the remainder of his term and then step down. Both sides will be granted amnesty and Honduras will emerge a more robust democracy.
Perhaps the bigger picture is the new role being played by the U.S. in the hemisphere. Obama’s engaged yet distanced approach has proven his commitment to work multilaterally with the hemisphere. The Latin left has even begun to differentiate between this cooperative U.S. President and the “empire” he stands before. Chávez recanted his initial accusation, calling Obama “more like a prisoner of the empire.” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, one of Chávez’s most loyal minions, has claimed “I believe U.S. intelligence didn’t tell Obama they were planning a coup.” Obama’s even-handed approach has exhibited the balance of confidence and humility required of the U.S. in a ‘unimultipolar’ world. The U.S. has become just one of many voices in a region it has long dominated, often at the expense of Latin Americans. A peacefully mediated resolution brokered by the OAS will be a victory not just for Honduras or for U.S.-Latin American relations, but also for the long-term advancement of democracy in a region where it has all too often been just out of reach.