The relationship between the actions of the Obama Administration and the actions of the coup government in Honduras is starting to look like those children’s games where you follow the order of the leader, but only if he says the special phrase. The Obama Administration says it wants to see President Zelaya restored. When the Administration appears to mean business, the coup regime appears to move towards compromise. When the Administration signals that its words are not to be heeded, the coup regime reasserts its intransigence.
Wednesday afternoon, it was reported that the leader installed by the coup had told Costa Rican mediators he personally accepted a compromise that would allow President Zelaya to return, but needed help in convincing the Honduran business elite to go along. This followed by one day the U.S. announcement that it had suspended the U.S. diplomatic visas of four leaders of the coup government. Initial press reports of the U.S. action indicated it was an escalation of U.S. pressure.
But subsequent statements by U.S. officials downplayed the idea that it was an escalation of U.S. pressure, asserting that it was just a continuation of the existing policy of not recognizing the coup government.
Predictably, then, the reports of movement in the coup government’s position were followed by reassertions by the coup government that there was no change: President Zelaya could not return.
The State Department said it wants to restore democracy. But apparently the State Department didn’t say "Simon Says."
When the mediation by Costa Rican President Arias was announced, there was much fanfare about what a clever diplomatic stroke it was by the State Department, taking the issue out of the hands of the South Americans.
But unless the goal was to delay the restoration of democracy as long as possible, it can’t be judged a success if there is no settlement of the conflict. The South Americans initially deferred to the Obama Administration, on the grounds of 1) give the new guy a chance and 2) Honduras is clearly in the U.S. "sphere of influence" (for example, the only country in Central America that hosts a U.S. military base.)
Soon, that deference to the Obama Administration will likely end, and the region will likely take matters into its own hands, as it did in resolving the crises during the Bush Administration when Colombia invaded Ecuador and when violent separatists tried to destabilize the government of Bolivia. What is to be gained for the U.S. in further delay?
The coup in Honduras is a bellwether event for Latin America and its relationship with the U.S. in the Obama Administration. It will shape perceptions in the region for years to come of what the boundaries are for the Obama Administration for permitted popular political and social reform in the region – just as the successful U.S.-supported coup in Chile and the unsuccessful U.S.-supported coup in Venezuela shaped perceptions in the region of what was permitted and not permitted. Obama promised a new relationship with Latin America. So far, it looks more like continuity than change.
But the Obama Administration still has the means at its disposal to make this right. People tend to remember the last thing that happened. If President Zelaya is restored, and people see that political space for democratic reform in Honduras is being preserved, the overall story in the region will be that the Obama Administration took the side of democracy.
Congress plays a key role here. Rep. Raul Grijalva is urging President Obama to enact real measures to pressure the coup leaders, including suspending their U.S. visas and freezing their U.S. bank accounts. He’s been joined by Reps. McGovern, Serrano, Conyers, Fattah, Honda, Barbara Lee., Jesse Jackson, and Oberstar. Ask your Representative to support Rep. Grijalva in urging Obama to say "Simon Says."