Deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya got his strongest endorsement yet from President Barack Obama on Tuesday as the exiled leftist leader returned to Washington to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The United States has joined Latin America in unanimously condemning the military coup in the banana-producing country that ran Zelaya out of town in his pajamas ten days ago.
But Washington has been reluctant to slap sanctions on Honduras and cut off U.S. aid. Instead it is cautiously looking for a negotiated and peaceful resolution to a crisis that looks like a win-win situation for the United States’ main adversary in the hemisphere, Venezuela’s leftist leader Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who turned left in office and signed on to Chavez’s growing anti-U.S. coalition, is hardly the best poster boy for democracy. His moves to follow Chavez’s example and extend presidential term limits in Honduras sparked the political crisis in which the Honduran Supreme Court, with the backing of Congress, ordered the army to oust the president.
After years of U.S. neglect of Latin America during the Bush administration, Obama is trying to improve relations with the region and cannot afford to be on the wrong side of a crisis that many Latin Americans see as a flashback to a dark era of military dictatorships supported by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Pentagon suspended military cooperation with Honduras last week, even though it maintains a U.S. base in the Central American country that served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the 1980s when the United States was supplying the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
Experts on Latin America warn that the close relationship with the Honduran military could lead the United States to do what it had done for decades during the Cold War: side with the elites.
“The battle between Zelaya and his opponents pits a reformist president supported by labor unions and social organizations against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to choosing not only the Supreme Court and the Congress, but also the president,” said Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
Dan Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue, believes Chavez is well-positioned to benefit from any outcome.
“If Zelaya is restored, then another Chavez ally remains in power. If the coup is not reversed, then Chavez has a new issue with which to rally anti-American sentiments in the region. The bottom line is that Chavez is engaged in trying to exploit the Honduran coup to maximum advantage,” Erikson said.
The hemisphere has still not figured out how to contain a new breed of power-grabbing populist leaders like Chavez who have risen through the ballot box, Erikson said.
But whatever their authoritarian tendencies might be, there is broad consensus today –unlike in decades past– that military coups against democratically elected governments are totally unacceptable.
Reuters photos by Luis Galdamez (Zelaya at San Salvador airport on July 5); Daniel LeClair (soldiers stop a woman), and Henry Romero ( Zelaya supporter protesting after soldiers fire tear gas at Tegucigalpa airport, where troops blocked the runway on July 5 to prevent the ousted president from landing).