Honduran Leadership Finds Friends Among GOP Lawmakers

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

In the three months since soldiers expelled Honduras's leftist president, the Obama administration and the rest of the world have shunned the Central American country, cutting off aid and travel visas. But the isolated Honduran leadership has found one lifeline: Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Within days of President Manuel Zelaya's ouster on June 28, the Honduran elite launched a lobbying campaign in Washington, arguing that the leftist leader had been a menace to their country. The de facto Honduran government and its allies have spent at least $600,000 on public-relations experts and lobbyists from both parties, including Lanny Davis, who was special counsel to President Bill Clinton.

Although the Hondurans have not succeeded in reversing U.S. policy, their arguments have found favor with some American lawmakers. A Republican senator has blocked two key nominations for Latin America, weakening President Obama's diplomatic team. In the past week, two GOP delegations have traveled to Honduras to meet with the de facto government, which is not recognized internationally.

Those actions have complicated the strategy of the Obama administration, which has been seeking to impress a growing crop of leftist Latin American leaders with its pro-democracy credentials. The administration is pressing for a negotiated solution in Honduras and worries that the de facto government is trying to run out the clock until the Nov. 29 presidential election -- with the support of its allies in Washington.

"It gives [the de facto government] this hope you can hang on," said one U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's not helpful."

Republicans say they are trying to prevent the spread of a leftist, anti-American ideology promoted by Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chávez -- a close ally of Zelaya's.

"We've seen these power-hungry leaders of South and Central America take command and never let go. It's a worrisome trend," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a longtime critic of Chávez.

But other Republicans who have befriended the de facto government have little or no experience in the region, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), an outspoken Obama foe. That has given rise to speculation that they are playing politics.

"It's about the Republicans using what they can to attack the administration," said Julia E. Sweig, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's definitely bigger than Latin America."

Some analysts say the pushback has made the Obama administration more cautious on Honduras. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month, however, that U.S. efforts to seek a negotiated solution have "certainly put us on the right side of the dispute."

The Honduran crisis began when Zelaya, a rancher who had positioned himself as a champion of the poor, was arrested by soldiers and whisked out of the country on a military plane.

Obama quickly joined the rest of the hemisphere's leaders in declaring that "the coup was not legal."

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