U.S. relations with Honduras appear to be stabilizing after coup

Many Hondurans feared Manuel Zelaya wanted to abolish the one-term presidential limit.
Many Hondurans feared Manuel Zelaya wanted to abolish the one-term presidential limit. (Carlos Guerrero/associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 6, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- Just weeks ago, wealthy businessman Adolfo Facussé was shocked to be turned away at Miami's airport. His visa, he discovered, had been canceled under a U.S. crackdown on supporters of a coup-installed Honduran government

But today, Facussé and his allies seem to have won their standoff with the U.S. government. Despite American efforts to isolate Honduras -- including canceling visas and aid -- this tiny country has refused to back down on the military's ouster of the president. And the U.S. government now appears to be on its way to normalizing relations.

The story of how the second-poorest country in the hemisphere defied a superpower involves smooth-talking U.S. lobbyists and a handful of congressional Republicans. Perhaps most of all, it features a Honduran elite terrified that their country was being hijacked by someone they considered an erratic leftist.

"The point for the United States was, if we pressure these [Honduran] people, they will do what we say," Facussé said during an interview in Tegucigalpa on the patio of his walled mansion.

"We will suffer some damages," he said. "But it's more important to have our country."

Many politicians and businessmen in this traditionally conservative country say President Manuel Zelaya was dangerous because of his growing alliance with Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chávez. The reality seems more complicated. The Honduran Congress backed Zelaya's decision to join Chávez's anti-American alliance last year, apparently in hopes of getting aid.

But Zelaya increasingly clashed with business leaders and politicians. He did not submit a 2009 budget and fought to get a Supreme Court judge reappointed even though she wasn't on a list of approved nominees.

The crisis came to a head when Zelaya proceeded with a poll on rewriting the constitution, even after it was ruled unconstitutional. Many Hondurans worried he wanted to abolish the one-term presidential limit.

U.S. diplomats, aware of growing pressure on the Honduran military to remove the president, urged a democratic solution. On June 28, however, soldiers rousted Zelaya from bed and forced him into exile. A phony resignation note was read in Congress.

President Obama called the move illegal, warning that it could set a "terrible precedent."

Still, it was hardly an old-style Latin American coup. The soldiers were acting on a secret Supreme Court arrest warrant charging Zelaya with abuse of power. Legislators replaced him with a civilian. As promised, the de facto government proceeded with regularly scheduled presidential elections in November.

"Their game was a very limited one," said Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas, speaking of supporters of the coup. "It wasn't to hold on to power but to basically remove a president they didn't like."


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