Despite many credible reports of violent crackdowns against supporters of ousted president Mel Zelaya, the de facto government of Honduras has managed to hold presidential elections that came off better than most observers had expected. The conservative Nationalist Party candidate, Porfirio Lobo, won handily. The United States quickly recognized the election results.
Yet, amid general rejoicing that the worst may be over, many Hondurans fear that the coup’s success represents a threat to the future stability of a democratic state. If the few dozen men who hold the strings of power and wealth can escalate one of the nation’s recurring political brawls into the overthrow of an elected president, how can future democratic leaders dare to challenge the culture of wealth and impunity that has made Honduras one of the most corrupt, crime-ridden, and unjust nations in the world?
In order to have any chance of success in restoring peace, order and democracy to Honduras, President Lobo will require the help and support of the entire hemisphere, not just the United States. Yet most governments of Latin America refuse to recognize the validity of the Honduran elections. While that may change over time, divisions within the hemisphere will linger because, in attempting to broker a post-coup political agreement, the Obama administration forgot that, in the eyes of Latin America, the United States was not negotiating for itself alone , but as the diplomatic spearhead of a hemispheric coalition seeking a prompt and definitive return to constitutional rule. Instead, Washington diplomats fell into their traditional stance in Central America: acting as the dominant power arbitrating disputes between rival factions of a client state.
When the coup occurred five months ago, President Obama condemned it as “illegal” and declared, “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backward into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means to political transition.” Despite that presidential guidance, Washington diplomats spent the next several months placating those who had carried out the coup, pleading with them to restore President Zelaya, if only for a symbolic few days, in order to gain international support for the coming presidential election.
When the handful of political and military mediocrities who engineered the Honduran coup refused to yield on the key point of restoring the constitutional president, our negotiators collapsed. Without consulting either with the Organization of American States or with leading hemispheric partners, the United States sold out Zelaya and agreed to recognize the results of the elections, regardless of who sat in the presidential chair. Then, having achieved the exact contrary of their declared objectives, the diplomats returned to Washington to explain how defeat equals victory.
As President Lula of Brazil watched the United States botch the straightforward challenge of restoring constitutional order to Honduras, he publicly criticized President Obama for “ignoring Latin America.” Here Lula was not implying that Obama had turned his back on individual countries of the region, but that he had reneged on his pledge, made at the Summit of the Americas, to seek an “equal partnership” with Latin America, one in which the United States did not dictate terms.
Lula, and other Latin American democratic leaders, understood that by “equal partnership” Obama meant a sharing of responsibility and joint action with other American states to safeguard the future of democracy in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, in the case of Honduras our diplomats apparently did not get Obama’s message.