The De Facto Honduras Government Serves the Purposes of Hugo Chávez

Saturday, September 5, 2009

THE AIM of U.S. policy in Honduras should be to reinforce the principles of democracy and the rule of law and to thwart those -- including ousted president Manuel Zelaya and his mentor, Hugo Chávez -- who are seeking to subvert them. At stake is not just the future of Honduras, a tiny Central American country, but the survival of threatened liberal institutions across Latin America.

It follows that the best solution to the crisis is that laid out in July by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Under its terms, Mr. Zelaya, who was arrested and deported by the military in June, would be allowed to return and resume his post -- thus reversing the clear breach of democratic order that occurred. However, the president would have to form a unity government under international supervision, he would have to abandon his attempt to hold an illegal referendum on changing the Honduran constitution, and he would have to leave office when his term ends in January.

This outcome would be a victory for the Hondurans who supported Mr. Zelaya's ouster because they feared he was attempting to mimic Mr. Chávez's dismantling of Venezuela's democracy. Mr. Chávez would lose his Honduran puppet by means he could not contest: A new president would be chosen in an internationally monitored election this fall.

By refusing to accept the Arias plan, Honduras's de facto government -- and its supporters in Washington -- are playing into the hands of the Latin American left. The Tegucigalpa administration of Roberto Micheletti is trying to resist pressure to allow Mr. Zelaya's return until the election is held and Mr. Zelaya's term expires. That would serve to undermine the legitimacy of any new president and prolong the crisis indefinitely. That's why the Obama administration was right to formalize a suspension of $31 million in aid this week and to join other Latin American governments in saying that "at this moment" it "would not be able to support the outcome of the elections."

The administration's action was not without risk. If the Micheletti regime digs in its heels, the result could be the very destabilization that the United States and its moderate allies hope to avoid. But the Obama administration won't have much chance of rallying Latin American governments against the anti-democratic abuses of Mr. Chávez or Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega if it is not willing to use its leverage in Honduras, a country whose economy would collapse without aid, free trade and worker remittances from the United States.

In fact, it seems probable that Mr. Micheletti's government would have yielded by now if not for the encouragement of Republicans in Congress. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) seems to think the best way to help Honduras is to block the confirmation of crucial administration diplomatic appointments in Latin America, including Arturo Valenzuela, a highly respected scholar and diplomat who should be helping to untangle this mess as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Once again, the only beneficiary of such obstructionism will be Mr. Chávez.

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