U.S. has bungled Honduran crisis

When President Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last April, he promised a new beginning in the United States’ historically fraught relations with Latin America. Since then, however, Latin Americans have seen more continuity than change, whether it’s the failure to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the new agreement to expand the use of military bases in Colombia or the handling of the recent coup in Honduras. In fact, the bungling of the Honduran crisis has further damaged U.S. credibility and caused a rift with strategic partners in South America.

To its credit, the administration joined Europe and the Organization of American States in condemning the June 28 coup, and initially tried working with Latin American allies to restore Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to office. When that failed, however, the administration negotiated a deal between the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti and Zelaya that lacked the teeth to ensure Zelaya’s reinstatement ahead of Sunday’s presidential election. Even worse, the U.S. seemed to give up its leverage by announcing that its recognition of the vote did not hinge on Zelaya’s return. That put the U.S. at odds with the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which argued that a de facto government cannot hold a free election. It also gives Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the opportunity to accuse the U.S. of paying lip service to democracy; in 2002, the George W. Bush administration supported a coup attempt against Chavez, and now Chavez will argue the Obama administration has allowed a coup to succeed in Honduras.

By voting out the party to which both Zelaya and Micheletti belong in favor of President-elect Porfirio Lobo, Honduran voters demonstrated that they want an end to the country’s international isolation. The Honduran Congress is scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to reinstate Zelaya for the rest of his term, which ends in January. The best thing for the country would be if both sides agreed to this. Sadly, it isn’t likely.

Honduras is among the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and we don’t think the Honduran people should be made to pay forever for the sins of its political leaders through continued economic sanctions. The Obama administration already has said it will recognize the Lobos government, and others will have no choice but to follow suit over time. Eventually, U.S. and other international economic aid should be restored to the new government. But U.S. credibility will be harder to restore so long as those who carried out the coup get away with impunity.