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Hands Off Honduras

The United States government, along with the rest of the Western Hemisphere’s governments, is so worked up about returning ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to power that it hasn’t thought through the long- or even medium-term consequences of its threats and demands.

Millions of dollars in aid to Honduras–one of the poorest countries in Latin America–was cut off after Zelaya was arrested by the military and sent into exile in June. The U.S. is not only threatening to cut off hundreds of millions more, it’s threatening to impose sanctions and not recognize the results of the November election if he isn’t first allowed back in office. These threats, if carried out, will put both Honduras and the U.S. in impossible positions.

Sanctions are supposed to be temporary. Targeted countries are always told what they can do to restore the status quo ante. Iran, for instance, can dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. Syria can cease and desist its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Saddam Hussein, while he still ruled Iraq, had the option of admitting weapons inspectors.

Honduras, though, will have no way out if the interim government doesn’t return Zelaya to power before his term ends in January. Because the Honduran constitution prohibits him and every other president from serving more than one term, it won’t be legally possible for Honduras to do what’s demanded of it after the end of this year. Unlike Iraq, Iran, and Syria, it will be isolated and trapped under sanctions indefinitely.

Sanctions and diplomatic isolation aren’t the geopolitical equivalents of jail time and fines; they’re used to coax rogue regimes into changing their behavior. They are tools of coercion, not punishment. By the time 2010 rolls around, it won’t make any difference how badly the current interim government of Honduras is or is not behaving right now if the next one is elected in a free and fair election. The “coup regime” will have been replaced. The crisis will be over, the problem resolved. Punishing the next government–and by extension, the people of Honduras–for something a temporary former government did the previous year is gratuitous and, as far as I know, unprecedented. Even a country as roguish and oppressive as North Korea can come in from the cold if it holds a genuinely free and fair election.

While Honduras will be placed in an impossible position that it can’t escape from, refusing to recognize the results of the November election will put the U.S. in an equally impossible position. Reality will force the U.S. to back down for one simple reason–it will be possible for the U.S. to back down, while Honduras could only surrender to our demands by using a time machine. We might as well play “chicken” with an inanimate object.

In the unlikely event that Zelaya is allowed to return to the presidential palace and finish out the final days of his tenure, he’ll redefine the term “lame duck” all by himself. He’ll be reduced to a figurehead and a chair warmer. The Congress, the courts, the military, and even his own political party are now against him.

Imagine how detested President George W. Bush would have to have been if the Supreme Court, every Republican senator and representative, and even Vice President Dick Cheney supported his removal from office. That’s what Zelaya faces today in Honduras. No president’s political capital could be lower. The interim government may find that the path of least resistance is letting Zelaya sit in his now powerless chair for a couple of weeks after running out most of the clock.

Either way, whether the ousted president returns or he doesn’t, a new election is scheduled to take place in November, and a new government will be sworn in next January. The crisis will then be over no matter what else happens between now and then. This may not be the preferred solution for the Obama administration and the Organization of American States, but it will solve the problem. Both Zelaya and the controversial interim government will be history. The only reason Honduras should be isolated or sanctioned after November is if the election is stolen or canceled.


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