Clinton's high-wire act on Honduras

US backs Costa Rica's Arias to mediate the crisis, wary of being seen as interfering in the region – as it has in the past.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to media after meeting privately with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya at State Department in Washington on Tuesday.

The Obama administration waded deeper into the political crisis in Honduras Tuesday, anxious to see the hemisphere's latest conflict resolved – but wary of appearing like the hegemonic power of old that imposed its will on smaller neighbors.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with ousted Honduran President Miguel Zelaya in Washington Tuesday, signaling unequivocal US support for Mr. Zelaya's return to office.

But Mrs. Clinton also announced that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his role in brokering an end to Central America's civil wars, will serve as international mediator for resolving the Honduran crisis. Both Zelaya and interim president Roberto Micheletti accept Arias's mediation role, Clinton said.

The naming of Mr. Arias brings a respected and seemingly neutral force into the picture while keeping the US profile low, some regional analysts say. But it also raises questions about what mandate he will have to resolve the 10-day-old standoff.

"It was a great idea to turn to Oscar Arias, but a lot still depends on who asked him, and what authority and discretion he will have to mediate," says Robert Pastor, a Latin America expert at American University in Washington who was national security adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean to President Carter.

Clinton's meeting with Zelaya took place hours after President Obama, in a speech in Moscow, cited the Honduran case as an example of American support for popularly elected leaders – even when those leaders have views the US opposes.

Zelaya was ousted on June 28 when a constitutional crisis pitting the president against the other branches of government boiled over, prompting the Honduran military to step in. The military put Zelaya on a plane to Costa Rica, and the Honduran Congress elected an interim president, Roberto Micheletti.

Clinton found herself meeting with an ousted leader who had moved closer in recent months to Venezuelan President – American bête noire – Hugo Chavez. Zelaya sought the same end to presidential term limits that Chavez had engineered in Venezuela.

It was Zelaya's insistence on holding a referendum on the issue – something both the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court considered unconstitutional – that precipitated the June 28 coup.

The Honduran action "was no classic Latin America military coup," says American University's Mr. Pastor, but a "much more complicated struggle among the legitimate branches of government." He adds that the failure of the Organization of American States (OAS) to recognize the difference has "exacerbated this crisis to a point well beyond where it needed to go."

The OAS quickly labeled the military action in Honduras a "coup," and last Saturday voted to suspend Honduras's membership in the organization. A wide spectrum of Latin American governments – from conservatives in Mexico and Colombia to moderates in Brazil and Chile and leftists in Ecuador and Argentina – all condemned the action as a coup, notes Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a regional think tank in Washington.

State Department officials are starting to float compromises that could lead to a resolution of the crisis, including a pledge from Zelaya not to seek any revision of the ban on presidential reelecton, and moving the presidential election up from the scheduled November date.

But all these proposals include Zelaya's return to office, even if for a clipped presidency.

In the meantime, Pastor says the region is learning a "good lesson" from the crisis. "The OAS is rediscovering the importance of its own Inter-American Democratic Charter," he says. "They need to be engaged on the broader subject of what threatens democracy in the Americas, and how to remedy it."

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