Democracy Derailed in Honduras: The “Haiti Option”

Excerpt from The Nation

Latin America has demonstrated a remarkable degree of unanimity in condemning the coup and demanding Zelaya’s return to power. "We cannot accept or recognize any new government other than President Zelaya," said Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The Organization of American States has stated that it will refuse to make any concessions to the coup plotters and that it will be open only to dialogue that would facilitate the "return of President Zelaya to his legitimate position." Other Central American nations have recalled their ambassadors from Honduras and have taken steps to isolate the country until democracy is restored.

Barack Obama, too, has issued strong words against Zelaya’s overthrow: "I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections," he said. "The region has made enormous progress over the past twenty years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past."

The State Department, though, has been more circumspect. At first it was reluctant to use the word "coup" to describe Zelaya’s overthrow, since to do so would trigger automatic sanctions, including the suspension of foreign aid and the withdrawal of US troops. Honduras hosts Soto Cano Air Force Base, the main US military base in the region, and Washington is concerned with keeping that installation fully operational. Likewise, according to John Negroponte–who as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s was implicated in the cover-up of hundreds of death-squad executions–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to "preserve some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum" and presumably from his other populist policies.

It seems like what the United States might be angling for in Honduras could be the "Haiti Option." In 1994 Bill Clinton worked to restore Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was deposed in a coup, but only on the condition that Aristide would support IMF and World Bank policies. The result was a disaster, leading to deepening poverty, escalating polarization and, in 2004, a second coup against Aristide, this one fully backed by the Bush White House.

Though there is no indication that the United States is considering using military force to restore Zelaya–as Clinton did for Aristide in 1994–Washington should follow the lead of the rest of the Americas and resist the temptation to attach conditions to its support for his return to office. Last week, during a meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a reporter asked Obama if he would apologize for America’s role in the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power (and led to the torture of Bachelet and her father, who died as a result). Obama demurred and said that he was "interested in going forward, not looking backward."

As Honduras teeters on the brink–as of this writing, the new regime has cracked down on the media and instituted a curfew, with reports of escalating repression by security forces against Zelaya supporters–one way to move forward would be to provide unconditional support for Zelaya’s immediate return.

"This is a golden opportunity," Costa Rica’s former vice president, Kevin Casas-Zamora, said , for Obama "to make a clear break with the past and show that he is unequivocally siding with democracy, even if [some in Washington] don’t necessarily like the guy."

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