Congress Ambiguous on Honduras Coup

Honduras remains on edge as the coup reaches 12 days. Photo: Luis Miranda
Honduras remains on edge as the coup reaches 12 days. Photo: Luis Miranda

HAVANA TIMES, July 10 – A semantic and political battle over whether what took place in Honduras on June 28 was in fact a coup d’etat took place Friday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

On that day, hundreds of Honduran soldiers converged on the home of President Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa and at gunpoint forced him onto a plane and out of the country.

Zelaya is considered a traitor by the wealthy business and landowner class that has dominated the Honduran politics and economics.  The president, himself a well-to-do cattleman, had made an unacceptable left turn towards the impoverished majority and had to be removed at all costs, even if is term of office was ending just over six months later.

IPS columnist Jim Lobe* gives HT readers a look at today’s hearing on the Honduran crisis at the same time as talks are underway in San Jose, Costa Rica with mediation from President Oscar Arias between the main protagonists and their representatives.  Here is Lobe’s report:

WASHINGTON, July 10 (IPS) – Although both parties claim undying commitment to democracy and the rule of law in Honduras, Democrats and Republicans here are deeply divided over the June 28 coup d’etat that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and what to do about it.

The split became abundantly clear here Friday at a packed hearing of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee on the House of Representatives, where lawmakers from both parties opined about the definition of a coup and heard witnesses ranging from staunch defenders of the de facto regime that succeeded Zelaya and veteran human rights activists who insisted that no solution was possible without the ousted president being re-instated.

“A coup is a coup is a coup,” declared Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif), who applauded the administration of President Barack Obama for cutting off all U.S. aid that channeled through the government in Tegucigalpa and standing by his demand that Zelaya be re-instated.

“A coup is a coup is a coup, and this was not a coup,” responded California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who said that the forcible exile of Zelaya by the military and the handing over of power to his constitutional successor, Roberto Micheletti, marked the “defeat of a left-wing coup” and “a great victory for democracy”.

California congresswoman Barbara Lee said a coup is a coup is a coup. Photo: Youth Radio
California congresswoman Barbara Lee said a coup is a coup is a coup. Photo: Youth Radio

And while Democrats insisted that, for all his faults, Zelaya remained the legitimately elected president of Honduras, the Republicans depicted him as a “would-be caudillo” in the mold – and at the bidding – of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chavez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy,” said Otto Reich, who led Latin America policy at the State Department during President George W. Bush’s first term when he tried to mobilize support for the 2002 attempted coup d’etat against Chavez.

The hearing, which followed Thursday’s launch in San Jose of a US-backed negotiating effort by Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias to resolve the two-week-old crisis, suggested that, despite the partisan divide over the legality of Zelaya’s ouster, a consensus on an eventual solution was possible, at least here in Washington.

The Subcommittee chairman, Democrat Elliot Engel, who expressed disappointment that the Obama administration’s declined a request to testify at the hearing, insisted that some formula by which Zelaya would be returned to office and permitted to serve out his term, which ends in January, in returning for abandoning any effort to reform the Constitution in a way that could prolong his tenure, would be the “most probable” solution.

None of the witnesses demurred, although Lanny Davis, a prominent attorney here representing the anti-Zelaya Honduras chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL), suggested that both Zelaya and those responsible for his forcible exile – which he said the business community rejected – should have to acknowledge their own illegal acts and be pardoned or amnestied as part of the solution.

Two other witnesses – Cynthia Arnson, a Central America expert who directs the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars; and former Honduran Foreign Minister Guillermo Perez-Cadalso, a member of an “unofficial” delegation of prominent Hondurans who have been lobbying here on the de facto government’s behalf since its arrival earlier this week – also suggested that elections currently scheduled for late November possibly be moved forward as part of any solution.

But whether Arias, who met separately with both Zelaya and Micheletti Thursday, can put such a package together and secure the parties’ agreement together remains to be seen, according to Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, who also testified at the hearing.

While the suggested compromise “makes sense at some level,” he told IPS, “there is no precedent for an (exiled) president going back, except for (Haitian President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide who only got back because of (President Bill) Clinton’s decision to send the military.”

Otto Reich, a rightwing Cuban-American who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, also supported the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002.
Otto Reich, a rightwing Cuban-American who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, also supported the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002.

“I think the (de facto government) is probably going to try to run out the clock” to the end of Zelaya’s term “or maybe move up the elections,” Shifter said. “There’s tremendous bitterness and distrust.”

But such a strategy carries major risks, however, according to Arnson, who told the lawmakers that “it is difficult to envision a solution that does not entail President Zelaya’s return to power”.

“I hope the process isn’t frozen,” she said after the hearing. “If (the impasse) lasts through November, it may be a recipe for more violence. I would like to think it’s not at impasse so early in the process (of Arias’ mediation). She said the acceptance of the two parties of Arias as a mediator was “extremely welcome.”

But there was some evidence that drawing out Arias’ mediation effort is precisely what the Micheletti forces intend.  “This dialogue must be allowed to be carried out to its completion,” stressed Perez-Cadalso, whose delegation is widely considered here to be acting as a proxy for the de facto government with which the Obama administration has refused to deal.  In addition to suggesting that elections be moved up, he said there also “must be a phased solution that includes fact-finding.”

“My clients thank Secretary (Hillary) Clinton for her support and believe the best thing that Congress can do for the Honduran people is to provide full support for this dialogue,” said Davis, who has a long and close legal and political association with the Clinton family.

Davis’ representation of Honduras’ business community – which generally regards Zelaya as a traitor for adopting populist measures, such as a 50-percent increase in the minimum wage – offered an unexpectedly vivid illustration of the political clout the anti-Zelaya forces can muster here, even among Democrats.

Arnson stressed that the roots of the current political crisis should be seen as much deeper than either Zelaya’s purported attempts to extend his rule or Chavez’s alleged geo-political ambitions.

“They can be found precisely in the weaknesses and limitations that make the populist temptation in Latin America not only attractive but feasible: the weakness of Honduran democratic institutions, including its political party and judicial systems, the inadequacy of mechanisms of representations, and the failure of Honduras’ economic growth and greater insertion into the international economy to overcome the country’s endemic poverty and inequality,” she said.

That was strongly echoed by Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who noted that, given the lack of policy differences between the two major parties in Honduras, and the persistence of rampant corruption, “over 20 years of ‘democratic’ transitions in the country have done little to address the political and economic marginalization experienced by the majority of the population.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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