Honduras: Reclaiming the American Sphere of Influence
While I took much issue with the Obama Administration’s initial response to the Honduran crisis in July, and especially the severe sanctions imposed, which achieve little more than hurting an already desperately poor population, I must admit that I’ve been quite happy with their actions in recent weeks. To be sure, the deal they helped negotiate was far from perfect from my admittedly distant perspective, but it appeared to be a fairly good faith attempt to recognize that even if the Michelletti regime has not covered itself in glory and acted illegally in forcing Zelaya into exile, the Constitutional concerns that gave rise to Zelaya’s ouster were very real and legitimate rather than manufactured power grab.
But today, that deal appears to have fallen apart in a deluge of finger-pointing. This fact leaves a whole host of thorny questions for the diplomatic community with massive implications for millions of Hondurans. First, who is to blame for the deal’s apparent collapse? Is this just kabuki theater on Zelaya’s part? On Michelletti’s? On both? Can the deal be salvaged? And most importantly, should any of this matter, especially if the elections at the end of the month turn out to be in accordance with international standards, or at least more in accordance with international standards than the “re-election” of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan?
From my distant perspective, this looks like it’s all just a chess match between Zelaya and Michelletti, in which neither side was particularly happy with the deal nor had much interest in complying with its spirit, even if they were willing to comply with its letter. Certainly, it looks like Michelletti’s attempts to seek Zelaya’s input on a short-term unity government were half-hearted at best, undertaken solely out of the desire to appease the international community. While I have no idea whether the deal required a vote on Zelaya’s reinstatement by yesterday, the delay in holding such a vote can only be described as spiteful and contrary to the spirit of the deal. At most, a vote restoring Zelaya to the Presidency by yesterday would enable Zelaya to be a lame duck President for a few months at a time when all the branches of government, including the military, have made clear that their loyalties lay with Michelletti’s faction. Zelaya will simply not have the time required to re-establish a power base within the government, and if he attempts to do so by dismissing the leadership of those other branches of government and replacing it with those loyal to him, he will quickly see the non-Chavez international community turn on him.
Meanwhile, Zelaya has to be largely aware of all of the above. Indeed, Zelaya probably never had much interest in seeing the deal fulfilled, which is why he refused to respond to Michelletti’s half-hearted attempts to form a unity government. What interest could Zelaya have in returning to the Presidency for perhaps a few months as a complete and utter lame duck? Better to ensure that the deal falls through, make a plausible case for blaming the international pariah Michelletti for that fact, and watch as the international community refuses to recognize the results of the elections. Once the elections have passed, Zelaya’s negotiating strength will likely increase dramatically as the new regime deals with widespread sanctions and intensifying international pressure and isolation.
At that point, Zelaya may be able to get a deal for a “unity government” with him installed at the helm that lasts more than just a few weeks or months, long enough for him to re-establish a power base within the government such that his restoration is not merely symbolic and he is more than just a lame duck. Maybe, maybe, he eventually gets enough negotiating power to get his Constitutional Amendment on the ballot.
Of course, no matter whether Zelaya is eventually restored to power, any sanctions that continue after the election will ensure that the Honduran people are the real losers.
There is some good news in all of this, though. The Obama Administration recently announced that, regardless of whether the deal is honored, it will recognize the winner of this month’s election, which presumably means that it will lift sanctions at that time as long as the election appears reasonably free and fair. Because the US is so far and away Honduras’ biggest trading partner, this move will significantly alleviate the suffering of the Honduran people.
Whether or not the deal is ultimately salvaged, the Obama Administration’s actions with respect to Honduras in the last several weeks seem to have been well-played and worthy of praise. In retrospect, my strong misgivings aside, the Administration’s actions in the initial stages of this crisis may well have a strong payoff in the end. Whether or not the ouster of Zelaya was a “coup” or a proper constitutional succession, the fact is that the uniform response of the international community in the opening days was to view it as a “coup.” In taking a hardline stance in those opening days along with the international community, the Obama Administration was able to distance itself from the legacy of decades of US-supported coups in Central and South America and re-establish international credibility as a good-faith arbiter in the region.
In the process, Obama was able to defang much of Hugo Chavez’ rhetoric portraying Latin American politics as a battle between American imperialism and Chavez’ “Bolivaran Revolution,” a battle Chavez was winning with ever-greater frequency. Moreover, Chavez’ threats of military force on Zelaya’s behalf were short-circuited at least in part because Chavez was deprived of the ability to claim that the coup was anything other than a domestic Honduran affair (even though, of course, Chavez himself played a part in creating the crisis in the first place).
What is unclear is whether the Organization of American States and the international community as a whole will follow the US’ lead in recognizing the results of the upcoming elections even if the settlement is not salvaged (assuming they accord with international standards, of course) or will instead follow Chavez’ hard line and keep sanctions in place. Regardless, that is at least an open question now; it was not an open question four months ago. Perhaps more importantly, though, Chavez’ growing regional influence has been largely neutralized by the inability to portray this as part of his narrative of Bolivaran people power versus US capitalist imperialism. Indeed, if the elections in Honduras are perceived as generally free and fair, any continued insistence on sanctions or on the re-instatement of Zelaya may well be perceived internationally as a naked attempt at a sort of “Bolivaran Imperialism” of its own.
Whether this was the Obama Administration’s strategy all along, I have no idea. Regardless, the entirely appropriate way the Administration has handled this the last few weeks was only made possible by the questionable actions it took in the opening days of the crisis. With that in mind, I apologize to the Administration for my initial freak-out. That initial response by the Administration may have been bad Honduran constitutional law, but in retrospect, it was probably very good international realpolitik.
Of course, if you wanted to be less generous to the Administration, you could point out that the US’ ability to influence the Honduran situation coincided pretty closely with Jonathan Bornstein’s miraculous last-second goal against Costa Rica which, in addition to winning the CONCACAF region for the US, sent Honduras’ soccer team to the World Cup.