The Obama administration’s position on Honduras seems more than a little strange. When a president is removed from office by order of the country’s Supreme Court and is replaced by the civilian next in line (a member of the president’s own political party), pursuant to a nearly unanimous vote of the country’s Congress, and there is a broad consensus in the church and civil society that the president’s return to office would cause violence, it makes no sense to call the removal a “coup” — much less the “military coup” necessary under U.S. law to terminate aid to the country.
Even stranger is the idea that the solution to the situation (assuming the situation is bad) is to not hold the previously scheduled November presidential elections — particularly since the removed president cannot run for re-election and would, even if he were restored to office, have to leave it a few months later.
So why is the Obama administration focused on forcing Honduras to restore Manuel Zelaya, even though the Honduran Supreme Court ruled that his removal was constitutional and that his reinstatement would violate Honduran law? Does the State Department know Honduran constitutional law better than the Honduran Supreme Court? Does it know the desires of the Honduran people better than the Honduran Congress?
And how would the Obama administration ensure that returning Zelaya to office would, in fact, be temporary? That question was raised in the September 3 State Department press conference after the removed president met with Secretary of State Clinton. Here is the colloquy with Phillip J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state:
QUESTION: P.J., you mentioned that the Secretary in the meeting today with Zelaya also suggested steps to him that he could take to give more guarantees or whatever to the de facto government. What are those?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, what we have here is a lack of trust on both sides. . . . Part of [the Honduran government’s] concerns, we believe, are questions about whether President Zelaya would abide by the San Jose Accords if both sides do, in fact, accept them.
And what the Secretary said to President Zelaya is there are things that you can do to create assurances within Honduras that if both sides accept the San Jose Accords formally, that he will in fact live by them . . .
QUESTION: And what specific steps would those include?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, part of this also is to bring down the — there’s anxiety within Honduran society. We remain concerned about human rights, intimidation by various — by the police, others, some episodes of violence. And we think that if all sides can bring down the rhetoric, tone down the acrimony, that then that would create a climate where ultimately, more rational actors can prevail.
Bringing down the rhetoric, toning down the acrimony, and creating a climate for “rational actors” is probably not going to be viewed by the Honduran government and civil society as responsive to their concerns. On the contrary, their concerns will probably be heightened when they read the September 4 article “Zelaya Speaks” in the Nation:
What the June 28 coup was able to prevent, for now, was an advisory referendum planned for three days later on whether there should be a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduras constitution. . . .
“The grassroots movement [provoked by the coup],” Zelaya said, has only one purpose, the transformation of Honduras, including deep structural changes. “This movement is now very strong. It can never be destroyed,” he said. . . .
The present tension may be winding down, but it is not over. . . . Any return to Honduras by Zelaya could be volatile, with the right-wing wanting his arrest or even his death. He cannot run for re-election under the present constitution. There is no visible candidate to replace him, and the constituent assembly proposal is off the agenda for now (or “por ahora,” as a young Hugo Chávez once said upon release from prison). [Emphasis added]
If you can just get reinstated, and if you realize you’ve only got a few months left to transform Honduras, “por ahora” might not be too long. You might simply need a serious crisis as an opportunity you would not want to waste.