De facto, interim or congressionally installed -- no matter the qualifier -- Roberto Micheletti is not the president of Honduras. Manuel Zelaya is, and like him or not, the man who was ousted in a military-civilian coup on June 28 should be returned to Tegucigalpa to finish the last months of his term. On this point, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and President Obama are agreed. The question is how to get him there against implacable opposition from the political elites.
The Obama administration was right to let Latin America take the lead in resolving the Honduran crisis, first through the OAS and, after Zelaya’s failed attempt to return home, through the mediation efforts of Costa Rica’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, Oscar Arias. But the talks broke up after two days of impasse, and the clock is ticking. Chavez has expressed doubts about the Arias negotiations, and Zelaya is threatening another return -- a move that could put his life and others’ at risk. It’s time the United States put more superpower pressure on the Honduran establishment.
Obama has stated clearly that tossing Zelaya out of the country by military force was illegal, and the United States has put a “pause” on tens of millions of dollars in aid. Venezuela has cut oil shipments, and the OAS has suspended Honduras, but none of that has ended the standoff. Micheletti and company seem to believe that if they can shoulder the hardships until November elections, all will be forgiven. Not so. The Obama administration needs to make it clear now that elections held under those conditions will not be regarded as legitimate and that such a plan would only prolong Honduras’ troubles. Meanwhile, the U.S. should consider imposing sanctions on individuals involved with the coup, such as canceling visas and freezing bank accounts. It could also follow the European Union and recall the U.S. ambassador.
Negotiations are the only solution, and we hope that all of Latin America will throw its support behind Arias to return Zelaya to the presidency. Zelaya should give up on his proposed referendum to tamper with the constitution and on the idea of extending presidential term limits, in exchange for Micheletti leaving office. Both sides, it seems, are going to need guarantees of amnesty. If that’s the cost of a negotiated solution, so be it. Failure to return to constitutional order would send a signal to the rest of Latin America that once again political problems can be solved with an old-style coup. And for Honduras, it would mean protracted social conflict, the erosion of the legitimacy of government institutions and, quite possibly, demand for a constitutional assembly of the sort the elites had hoped to stave off with a coup.