After Months of Negotiation, Political Deal Finally Reached in Honduras

By Patrick Homan
November 1, 2009

The political crisis that has plagued Honduras over the last four months finally came to an end late last week when the leader of the nation’s de facto government agreed to allow the return of the country’s ousted president. Both sides reached an agreement less than two days after senior American officials arrived to mediate, resolving a growing political headache in the United States.

On June 28, 2009, in the first military coup to take place in Central America since the end of the Cold War, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from his position and forced to flee to Costa Rica. The coup was the culmination of weeks of increased tension over his efforts to revise the Honduran Constitution, which critics believed was an illegal attempt to lift presidential term limits in order for him to stay in office past the end of his term in January. Honduras’ highest court agreed with Zelaya’s critics and declared the referendum unconstitutional after which Congress formally voted Zelaya out of office. Roberto Micheletti, the president of Congress, replaced him.

President Obama joined much of Latin America in condemning the action and called for President Zelaya to be returned to power. There were numerous, unsuccessful attempts at mediation by envoys including Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and delegations from the United States and the Organization from American States (OAS). But these attempts failed, and the United States and the international community cut off aid to the country and imposed sanctions on to the Micheletti-led government.

Micheletti demanded that the international community accept the coup as a legal transition of power and support the outcome of presidential elections scheduled for late November. Negotiations failed because of his refusal to allow Zelaya to return to power. Honduran security forces cracked down on the pro-Zelaya opposition with beatings, mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, and an overall disproportionate use of force.

As the crisis dragged on, a widening rift emerged in Washington among U.S. policymakers regarding the American response. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina led a group of Republican lawmakers that supported Zelaya’s opponents, believing they had no choice but to oust the president because of his illegal attempts to stay in power. The group tried to pressure the Obama administration to reverse its position by holding up a number of key State Department appointments within Latin America.

Meanwhile, sixteen members of Congress wrote to President Obama, urging him to stop equivocating on U.S. policy to the illegitimate government. They urged the President to state that the United States would not recognize the elections in Honduras that the new regime was organizing.

Further complications arose when the Micheletti-led government began a high profile Washington lobbying campaign to force the Obama administration into sending mixed signals about its position towards Honduras. All this confusion made the issue a sore point between the Obama administration and leaders in the region. The United States was accused of failing to put enough pressure on the de facto government to force it to compromise and stop its violations of human rights.

In response to the growing concern, the Obama Administration stepped-up its efforts - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke directly to both Zelaya and Micheletti, and a delegation of senior officials traveled to the country for a fresh round of negotiations. A breakthrough finally came late last Thursday. The deal, essentially an updated version of prior proposals, is still pending approval from the Honduran Congress. It allows for Zelaya to be restored as president with limited powers until his original term in office expires in January 2010 and a new democratically elected government takes over. The United States urged Micheletti to accept the deal, asserting that it was the only way the international community would recognize the legitimacy of upcoming presidential elections.

The situation in Honduras emerged as a surprise foreign policy test for the Obama administration at a time when the president’s focus was on other difficult issues. For months, the administration played a small part in the negotiations, positioning itself as just another member of a mediating coalition that included a number of countries throughout the region. Only after relations in the hemisphere began to deteriorate and the Congressional divisions emerged did the young and inexperienced Obama team correct its mistake. Although the deal is considered a breakthrough in preventing the crisis from dragging on any further, perhaps, the more important foreign policy lesson to be learned here is recognizing the importance and capabilities of U.S. leadership abroad.

Patrick Homan is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Northern Illinois University.

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