Fallout from Honduras's presidential crisis – in Washington

The military ouster of Honduras's president, Manuel Zelaya, has led to a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya talks at the U.S. State Department after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on September 3.
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The military ouster of Honduras's president in June has led to deep ideological fissures, paralysis in a legislative committee, and efforts to undermine national foreign policy.

And no, that's not a sampling of what's happening in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, but rather in Washington, where a deep and cranky divide has formed between Democrats and Republicans over what most Democrats call a "coup" in America's backyard.

Honduras thus becomes another entry on a long list of Latin American countries that have served as Olive Oyls to Washington's left-right tug of wars.

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"There's a time-honored history of members of Congress turning to Latin America to play out their ideological differences with each other and with the White House," says Daniel Erikson, senior associate for US policy at the Center for Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "It's an easy place to play politics from the perspective of Congress because it's not seen as an area of vital national security interest, as Afghanistan or the Middle East or Asia would be."

The Organization of American States plans to take another stab Wednesday at resolving the three-month-old stalemate between ousted President Manuel Zelaya – now holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa – and interim president Roberto Micheletti. An OAS delegation will travel to the Honduran capital and a "call to dialogue" is anticipated, though a snap resolution of the political conflict appears unlikely.

In Washington, fallout from the Honduran crisis is piling up. Presidential diplomatic appointments are being held hostage; one Democratic senator tried to block a Republican colleague from visiting Honduras; and the State Department – suspected in parts of Latin America of actually supporting the military action against Mr. Zelaya – faces renewed questions about the US stance on Central America's most serious political crisis in at least a decade.

Washington's Honduras divide is captured in the heated battle between the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and a Republican committee member, Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Senator DeMint enraged Senator Kerry by placing a hold on two nominations before the committee: that of Arturo Valenzuela to become assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and that of Thomas Shannon to be ambassador to Brazil.

DeMint, like a number of conservative Republicans, says Zelaya was legitimately removed from office as he plotted a takeover in the image of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez. He faults both nominees for, "like the Obama administration, defending the unconstitutional strong-arm tactics of Zelaya."

For his part, a furious Kerry tried to foil DeMint's plans for a fact-finding trip Friday to Tegucigalpa. In the end, the Pentagon provided DeMint and his delegation with a plane.

"This is the kind of latent ideological divide that flares up in Congress when you get a crisis like this one in Honduras with elements that fit the beliefs and concerns of each side," says Mr. Erikson. The involvement of Venezuela's Mr. Chávez, who defends Zelaya against a "rightist coup" he insists was aided by the US military, "really reverberates with the US Congress," Erikson adds.

DeMint claims that, as a result of his trip, Mr. Micheletti on Monday announced his intention to lift a controversial emergency decree, made shortly after Zelaya's surreptitious return to Honduras, that limits civil liberties such as press freedoms and freedom of assembly.

But Obama administration backers say DeMint's actions undermine US foreign policy. Micheletti is playing the US congressional divide for all it's worth, these policy analysts say, adding that he may feel little incentive to compromise if he senses he has support in Washington. After some hesitation, the State Department sided with Zelaya and imposed some measures against the Micheletti government, including a revocation of some Honduran officials' visas and millions of dollars in reduced aid. The US is also threatening not to recognize the winner of presidential elections set for late November.

But the administration was also irked by Zelaya's risky, undercover return to Tegucigalpa and has refrained from imposing anything as harsh as trade sanctions.

Meanwhile, says Erikson, the sound and the fury in Congress go "well beyond Honduras to the whole question of how the US should deal with the left-leaning countries in Latin America."

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