Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Matter of Time

Looks like Honduras has now been lost to the Chavez camp. The de facto government is being stubborn and the US is going to invoke further sanctions if they don't let Zelaya back. Like it or not, the US is backing Zelaya's return and will withdraw all foreign aid (now only military aid is suspended) and will probably withdraw our ambassador and the Peace Corps. So it will be Honduras against the world unless Zelaya goes back--Obama has no other choice if he is to maintain international credibility and neutralize Chavez at all.

So, the US, as a matter of principle and to show a new international face, has to support Zelaya. It’s hard for members of the interim government to understand why their faithful ally, the US, is abandoning them. (The Honduran army served in Iraq!) They should realize that coming to some sort of agreement, while not getting them what they want, is probably better than standing fast against the whole world. It’s the lesser of evils. And it might even make them seem magnanimous, not weak. The spirit of compromise is not a strong trait in Latin American (or any) politics, but Obama is trying to foster it. But if Zelaya does go back, the US needs to make sure(preferably through the OAS) that he sticks to what he has agreed to. We'll soon see what happens.

Whether or not Zelaya is actually able to return in person, his candidate is likely to be the favorite in the upcoming presidential election. Too bad that non-leftist Latin American governments--and the US, which has neglected the region--have let Chavez grab the mantle of helping the poor (the majority in all Latin American countries), so now another country may enter that orbit, despite the bungled internal attempt to stop it. But if Zelaya could go back with protection, as Arias has tried to arrange--even as just a figurehead, with amnesty for both sides, that might lessen the polarization and give a moderate a fighting chance to win the presidency. Or if Zelaya does not return and all US aid is suspended, Hondurans will suffer and then his designated candidate is still likely to win. And if he sneaks back in, all hell will break loose. It's a no-win situation and if there is a winner, it's likely to be Chavez.

Just this morning, at a local hospital, my interpretation clients were Nicaraguans, glad to be out of Nicaragua now that it's back under the Sandinistas, though life is admittedly not as harsh as in the 1980s. They were feeling sorry for Honduras having to learn the hard way. The problem is that once they learn, it then is usually too late to get rid of those guys. As my patient’s daughter said, “This time Ortega was elected with only 30% of the vote. The opposition did not unite, as they did in 1990 to elect Violeta. And young people today don’t remember the 1980s. No one knows how hard it was then, everything rationed, and you had to support them. Ortega isn’t as bad this time, but he wants to stay in power, just like Chavez.” Of course, Nicaraguans who came to this country as refugees, like this family, were not Sandinista supporters, but from what they told me, they were never wealthy or even small business owners, just ordinary people trying to survive.

In Honduras, emotions are running high. The interim government is ordering Venezuelan diplomats expelled. This just in from a kindergarten teacher in Honduras, protesting that Arias is not a neutral mediator, but is favoring Zelaya, trying to foist him back on the Honduran people after 18 charges have been brought against him and trying to have Honduras repeat the history of Venezuela and that all the international organizations are ganging up on Honduras, while Zelaya has the nerve to attend talks in Costa Rica in a car bearing Venezuela license plates and a Venezuelan flag (again, no editing): Referente a la situacion de mi pais quisiera desconocer los arreglos que desea hacer el presidente arias con mucho respeto puedo decir que es inadmisible lo que nos pide a los hondureños que aceptemos como ser amnistia para zelaya antes y despues del 28 de junio que horror cuando el en nuestro pais tiene 18 cargos legales que lo acusan y aun asi su primer punto es decir el de arias es devolverlo al poder parece que quieren repetir la historia de venezuela con nosotros.me parece que no hay dialogo cuando el mediador se inclina con un grupo determinado o sera que lo precionan los organismos internacionales de ser asi no tiene credibilidad.que decepcion me da saber que la delegacion de zelaya llega a costa rica al dialogo en un auto con placas y bandera venezolana que poco sentido de patria.gracias por atender mi punto de vista.

Planning for the Worst in Honduras

By Michael Shifter
Foreign Policy, July 21, 2009

It is tempting to be dismissive of the ongoing deadlock in Honduras. Since a coup took the country's president, Manuel Zelaya, out of power on June 28, a drama of near comic-opera proportions has ensued. How this opus will end is anyone's guess, but that is exactly why the Obama administration would do well to plan for every possible outcome from good to awful. What is clear, though, is that Honduras's crisis will have far-ranging implications for the region and for U.S. policy in Latin America.

In negotiations last weekend, Costa Rica's tenacious, Nobel Prize-winning president, Óscar Arias, proposed a seven-point solution that is backed by the international community and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Zelaya supports the plan, which includes his reinstatement (though it would take the military out of his hands and bar him from changing the Constitution to try and stay in office). The de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti, however, has signaled its willingness to negotiate on only six of Arias's seven points; Micheletti has steadfastly refused to accept Zelaya's return as president. As Arias said on Sunday, the stakes for failing to reach a settlement are clear: violence or even civil war could erupt in Honduras.

Preventing that will be a tall order. So far, Washington has walked a careful line -- condemning Zelaya's ouster and eschewing the term "coup" to avoid triggering complete cuts in aid to Honduras, for example. The United States has left its ambassador in Tegucigalpa and kept its distance from Zelaya, whose questionable conduct in defiance of the Supreme Court and Congress provoked the institutional crisis that led to the coup.

The balancing act is about to get a lot harder. The Obama administration must now show its commitment to democracy, work with Latin American neighbors, and simultaneously push for a pragmatic solution that muffles any impending instability. And no matter what, the administration had better have a Plan B for how to handle Honduras.

In the best scenario, the Micheletti government would agree to the contours of the Arias plan, allowing Zelaya to return for the few months preceding new elections. Zelaya would lead a national unity government, but with significantly limited authority and amnesty for political crimes committed by either side. Such a compromise would send the message to an increasingly politically unsettled Latin America that coups (however ambiguously defined) will not be allowed to stand. It would keep the United States and much of the international community on the "right side of history," as Obama likes to say. It also stands the best chance at calming the high passions and volatile conditions in Honduras.

But how realistic and viable is such an outcome? Two less benign scenarios are also in the offing. In the first one, Micheletti does not budge on Zelaya's reinstatement. Instead, he tries to withstand international pressure and isolation until the completion of the fall elections, when a new president would regain the legitimacy necessary to win back normal diplomatic and economic relations. In this scenario, Zelaya might return, as he has already tried to do, risking greater unrest in Honduras. The Obama administration would need to focus first and foremost on not letting the situation escalate. That would mean pressuring the acting government to respond to unrest effectively but peacefully, in a manner respectful of human rights.
In the second scenario, even if the Arias plan does go forward and Zelaya returns under the conditions set forth in the agreement, there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly. Zelaya might do precisely what the Micheletti government fears, which is to defy the Arias plan, as he previously defied the Supreme Court and Congress, and set about on another unconstitutional power grab. This is a real risk, but one that can best be mitigated by a vigilant international presence aimed at constraining Zelaya's behavior. Making sure the upcoming elections are fair and credible will help. Washington might have to dig its hands in deeper than it would like -- certainly more deeply than it has done to date.

Of course, the trickiest detail of all is the fact that the ousted and now foreign-backed Zelaya is no friend of the United States, nor of democracy. Since 2008, the Honduran president has allied himself with a U.S. foreign-policy nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Obama has openly recognized this fact, which has earned the administration even more praise for maintaining its principled stand on the Honduras crisis. But Chávez has been, and will continue to be, a problem as he seeks to curtail Washington's influence. Obama's response to the coup has helped neutralize the Venezuelan strongman. Had the U.S. president not been as firm, Chávez would have seized on Washington's wobbliness to come out politically stronger, claiming the moral high ground. The right U.S. response in Honduras now will make Obama more effective and credible in responding to other antidemocratic actions later, whether in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Whatever might be said about Zelaya's own responsibility in bringing about the crisis, his forced removal from the country by the military is no minor detail. It is a rupture in the democratic order that touched a nerve in a region that has long struggled to keep its various armed forces under control. That history makes it all the more urgent to heed Arias's ominous warning and resolve this crisis peacefully now.

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