In the last two weeks, the political situation in Honduras has begun spiraling out of control. Coup leaders, led by Roberto Micheletti, have significantly raised the stakes since the return of exiled president Manuel Zelaya on September 22. Zelaya, ousted on June 28 in a late night coup, surreptitiously returned to his home country and found asylum in the Brazilian embassy without the Honduran military’s knowledge. His supporters immediately rushed to the embassy, demanding the military allow him to retake the presidency.
The military and police have responded with shocking brutality, Determined to keep Zelaya out of power, they have killed at least one protestor, beaten several others, and shut down news outlets that gave Zelaya an outlet to speak. With Brazil willing to host Zelaya indefinitely, the potential for violence remains high.
The Obama Administration has had difficulty dealing with the Honduras situation. Certainly Central America is not high on Obama’s foreign policy priority list. Ever since George W. Bush decided to remake the Middle East, Latin America has played a secondary role in American foreign policy.
U.S. troops have not invaded a Latin American nation since Haiti in 1994, which is by far the longest span of time without American military intervention in the region since the nineteenth century. This space has allowed Latin American nations to flex their muscles like never before. Strong regional leaders have emerged in the last decade.
The American media focuses on Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but arguably more important is Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has led his nation into international prominence and served as a progressive and democratic force in the region while avoiding Chavez’s bombast. Other nations including Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador have all elected progressive leaders in free and fair elections without U.S. interference.
For the first time since the 1980s however, antidemocratic forces have taken power in a Latin American country. Costa Rican president Oscar Arias took the lead on negotiations between Zelaya and the coup leaders, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner faced iron opposition to Zelaya’s return to power. Micheletti and his supporters have discovered the power of no. With the United States more than occupied in Afghanistan and Iraq, the coup leaders challenge the world to do something about their actions. They know other nations will not invade. They have no respect for Honduras’ fragile democratic traditions. They do not care about sanctions. The suffering of the impoverished Honduran people has never worried the nation’s ruling class, at least not before Zelaya.
In the end, Honduras represents the greatest Latin American foreign policy challenge the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War. While other nations almost immediately cut all aid to Honduras after the coup, the U.S. demurred, rightfully claiming this desperately poor country needed foreign aid to survive. The U.S. has since moved closer to withholding aid, citing the coup leaders’ intransigence. But it’s clear that this will not move the coup leaders, who care far more about their own power than the fate of Honduras’ poor.
The international community has responded with unified condemnation of the coup. A stern international response is important because of the potential for right-wing coups throughout Latin America. Particularly in Bolivia, the traditional elite loathe Evo Morales with white-hot passion. They would like nothing more than the clock to return to 1982 and the Reagan Administration to send in troops to kill Morales. Given the circumstances, I have no doubt that the Bolivian military and wealthy elite are closely monitoring the international response to Honduras to see what reaction their own coup might engender.
The U.S., working with Brazil, the European Union, and other major international entities, must step up and provide strong resistance to the Honduran coup leaders. Moreover, it must ignore Republican Party leaders who want the U.S. to recognize Micheletti’s government. Republicans see every left of center Latin American leader as the next Fidel Castro. They would love to restore the Cold War relationship with Latin America. This is unacceptable in the twenty-first century. Instead, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton must continue to stand strongly for democracy in the region, giving no recognition to the coup and demanding Zelaya’s return to the presidency.
Most importantly, the United States must not recognize Honduras’ November presidential elections in the face of military repression and the closing of important media outlets. The elections end Zelaya’s presidential term, but his followers do not have a fair playing field to elect another leader. Continued pressure on the coup leaders represents the only card the U.S. has to play at this time. It seems to be having a positive effect. Honduran business leaders have begun suggesting solutions to the impasse because the U.S. has revoked their visas. Not being able to travel to Miami for luxury weekend vacations moves these people in ways no amount of poverty among the nation’s poor ever would.
I would like to see the United States and Europe go farther and freeze the international bank accounts of anyone involved in the coup. Given that military intervention is a terrible idea and that sanctions will not work, making the lives of the coup leaders as uncomfortable as possible might be the best way to end the greatest threat to Central American political stability in the last decade.
Erik Loomis is a visiting assistant professor of history at Southwestern University. He blogs at Alterdestiny.