President Obama’s Credibility on the Line in Honduras

Source: Guardian Unlimited

Last Friday an agreement was reached between the de facto regime in Honduras, which took power in a military coup on 28 June, and the elected president Manuel Zelaya, for the restoration of democracy there.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in announcing what she called an historic agreement, said: "I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that … overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue." Hopefully this will turn out to be true.

But the ink was barely dry on the accord when leaders of the coup regime indicated that they had no intention of honouring it. Some of them clearly saw the agreement as just another delaying tactic. They have talked of postponing congressional approval of the accord until after the 29 November elections, or even voting not to restore Zelaya.

If the Honduran congress delays or rejects the restoration of Zelaya, it will violate the clear intent of the accord. The agreement states: "The decision the national congress adopts should establish a basis for achieving the social peace, political tranquility and democratic governability the society requires and the country needs." This and other language makes it clear that the negotiators – who have the ability to deliver the votes in congress – agreed on Zelaya’s restoration.

Furthermore, justice delayed here is justice denied. Two-thirds of the legally allowed campaign period has already lapsed, under conditions of dictatorship that made free election campaigning impossible.

The Obama administration has itself been divided on what to do about the military overthrow of democracy in Honduras. Hence the mixed signals and vacillation from the very beginning, when the first statement from the White House failed to even condemn the coup.

Those in the administration who think they can now wash their hands of the accord and let the coup leaders turn their back on it had better think twice. The Obama team has embarrassed itself enough by having to be pressured by the rest of the hemisphere to tell the coup government that Washington would not recognise the 29 November elections without prior restoration of Zelaya. Just a few weeks earlier, the Obama administration had blocked the Organisation of American States from passing a resolution to this effect.

But now Washington’s credibility is really on the line. The Obama team brokered this accord and got a commitment from the coup leaders. If they go back on it, how much will the Obama administration’s word be worth on anything else? Everyone knows that Washington has the ability to force the coup regime to comply. There are billions of dollars of its assets in the US that could be frozen or seized. Seventy percent of the country’s exports go to the US. The coup regime has no international legitimacy and no standing to challenge the US under international treaties for any economic sanctions that might be invoked.

The Obama administration never used the effective tools at its disposal. Instead it dithered for months, finally cutting off a fraction of its aid to the coup government and revoking some visas. The administration refused to even declare that a military coup had taken place, since this would have required more cuts in foreign assistance.

Most tellingly, Washington refused to denounce the massive human rights violations committed by the dictatorship. These included police beatings, illegal detention of thousands, closing of independent radio and television, suspension of civil rights and even some political murders. The crimes were denounced by all major human rights organisations, inside and outside of Honduras – and by many governments – but the Obama administration maintained a deafening silence.

Based on the recent past, the coup leaders – one of whom was forced to resign his post as foreign minister after levelling racial epithets at Obama – might think they can safely ignore the agreement. But the rest of the hemisphere, and the Honduran people – who have courageously resisted the coup from day one – will not let them get away with it. No one will recognise the November elections if Zelaya is not restored promptly.

Tuesday night, Thomas Shannon, the US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told CNN en Espanol that the US plans to recognise the November elections whether or not Zelaya is restored. This would definitely put Washington on a collision course with the rest of the hemisphere, including Brazil. Furthermore, according to diplomats close to the negotiations, both Shannon and Hillary Clinton had given assurances that last week’s accord would bring Zelaya back to the presidency.

Shannon’s statement to CNN prompted a letter from Zelaya to Clinton, asking whether the US government had changed its position on the coup d’etat in Honduras.

Obama now has a choice. He can force the coup regime to honour the accord or lose further credibility among governments in the hemisphere and the world.