A Step Backward: Obama Administration Lacked Backbone in Response to Honduras Coup d’État

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During the first months of President Obama’s term, it looked as though U.S.-Latin American relations would turn a new page. An initial sign was the United States’ participation in several conferences pertaining to the Americas, most importantly those held by the Organization of American States (OAS) soon after Obama’s inauguration. The June 2009 coup in Honduras was one of the first major tests in Latin America for the Obama administration. It was one of the first opportunities to change foreign policy within the region and unfortunately, the United States’ efforts in Honduras ultimately ended in failure. While the Obama administration was initially resolute in its condemnation of the coup, calling resonantly for Zelaya’s reinstatement, it later altered its demands, in practice abandoning hope of restoring Manuel Zelaya to his place as the legitimate president of Honduras. Indeed, in the case of Honduras, President Obama largely failed to provide sufficient support for a democracy in peril.

Coup d’État Condemned

On the morning of 28 June 2009, the Honduran National Guard forcibly removed President Zelaya from his residence in Tegucigalpa and flew him to San José, Costa Rica. Zelaya was first supported by conservatives in Honduras, but became increasingly radical when his presidency began in 2006 and reforms followed suit such as joining ALBA (Bolivian Alliance for the Americas), increasing the minimum wage and reducing bank interest rates. The newly exiled Zelaya protested his wrongful expulsion from the country, maintaining that he remained the legitimate President of Honduras. However, the new de facto President and former Parliamentary Speaker, Roberto Micheletti, had the military’s backing. Micheletti insisted that Zelaya had violated the Honduran constitution and was therefore no longer eligible to be president. The following day, leftist members of ALBA were quick to condemn the coup, followed by the United Nations, the OAS, and the United States in quick succession. ALBA’s rapid alignment with Zelaya in this case was unsurprising, considering the strong political ties between Zelaya and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, ALBA’s major force.

From the outset, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were both adamant in their disapproval of the events in Honduras. Obama was in Colombia the day following the coup, and the statement he made on the subject was unequivocal:

President Zelaya was democratically elected…[Zelaya] had not completed his term…we believe that the coup was not legal…in that we have joined all the countries in the region including Colombia and the Organization of American States…I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition.

Secretary Clinton made similar declarations, all of which seemed to fall by the wayside as the coup unfolded over the following months.

A Changing of the Guard

As previously mentioned, the United States’ initial show of support for Zelaya did not last. Months of fruitless negotiations with the de facto government and self-proclaimed President Roberto Micheletti passed without a resolution. By November 2009, the de facto government had agreed to hold a new election in which neither Micheletti nor Zelaya would appear on the ballot. Approximately 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for that election, and on 30 November 2009, Porfirio Lobo, a former opponent of Zelaya, became the new President-elect of Honduras with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. At that time, the United States backed down on its initially stated goal of restoring Zelaya to power, opting instead to accept the terms of the new election. Other major powers in Latin America, however, refused to accept the results of the November 30th election on the grounds that Zelaya’s removal was illegitimate in the first place. The OAS, the United Nations, and most Latin American states—including Brazil and Argentina—refused to recognize the Lobo administration.

The United States (along with Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia) would stand out as one the few countries that recognized the legitimacy of the November 2009 election. In a July 2010 Huffington Post article entitled “One Year After the Coup, Honduras Still in Crisis,” an anonymous U.S. government official stated that the “the U.S. strongly supports the democratically-elected government of Pepe [sic] Lobo, and its urge to strengthen democratic institutions in Honduras, increase respect for human rights, and deal with major economic and social problems.” The statement made it clear that the Obama administration would uphold its decision to recognize Lobo, regardless of widespread international disapproval. Despite U.S. assertions to the contrary, the best way for the United States to restore order and truly encourage the democratic process in Honduras would have been to stand firm in its initial demands that Zelaya be reinstated. Moreover, Zelaya had only six months left of his term when the coup took place. If the Obama administration, in conjunction with the OAS, had taken quick and decisive action to return Zelaya to power, he could have served out the remainder of his term, and the democratic process would not have been entirely interrupted. Instead the democratic process was broken by the November 2009 election, to which the United Nations did not even send electoral observers because they questioned the very legitimacy of the election itself.

Obama’s Reputation in Latin America

Particularly during the Cold War era, the United States was notorious for disrupting the democratic process in Latin America by directly aiding and encouraging coups against (primarily left-wing) governments in the region. Though the United States still exercises a fair amount of influence in Latin America, that influence is now largely economic, and thus far less direct. Nevertheless, the United States continues to struggle with its legacy in the region. Since Zelaya was no friend to the United States (indeed, he was far closer with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez), the coup in Honduras represented an ideal opportunity for the United States to convince Latin Americans of its unconditional support for democracy in the region by helping Zelaya return to power, despite its differences with the ousted leader. By backing down and accepting the November election, the U.S. failed to prove itself to Latin America. It appears that deeper political motivations were behind the United States’ ultimate decision to accept Lobo’s election rather than see through Zelaya’s reinstatement. In “Honduras: Whitewashing the Coup,” published by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Adrienne Pine writes extensively on the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that took place in the U.S. after the coup:

Washington’s coup supporters in the State Department and various think tanks…launched a savvy PR campaign almost immediately after the coup. They succeeded in persuading many legislators to recognize the coup and the election that installed its successor, while seeking to bury the well-documented record of post-coup state violence in Honduras.

The flip-flopping of the U.S. position on Honduras, although nothing new, sends a dangerous message to the rest of Latin America. The twenty-first century version of the United States theoretically frowns upon coups. However, when one does occur, the U.S. too hastily accepts a replacement president—even if that replacement is an opponent of the former president and has a vastly different political agenda, as was the case with Honduras’ Pepe Lobo. Obama’s reversal on the issue of Zelaya’s reinstatement lends credence to the argument that the U.S. will continue to tolerate coups, if the outcome works in the United States’ political favor.

Hypocrisy at Its Best

Human rights violations in Honduras have increased since Lobo took power at the end of January 2010. Writing in The Guardian, Joseph Huff-Hannon states that “in 2010 at least eight journalists have been killed…all of them critics of the coup and/or of powerful business interest in the country…Dozens of anti-coup activists, members of the National Resistance Front and union activists have also been murdered.” This troubling trend indicates that Lobo’s government is suppressing the political opposition and creating an even worse reputation than Micheletti’s de facto government. The international community, and the U.S. specifically, must be more outspoken in its criticism of these events. It is worrying that the Obama administration expects Lobo to solve the issue of human rights violations while Lobo’s government is itself responsible for several of these occurrences. Honduras receives millions of dollars in military and other aid expenditures from the United States. This aid could easily be a sufficient bargaining chip for the U.S. to demand a more thorough observance of human rights within the country. A major Honduran military base, Soto Cano, operates with over 1,000 U.S. and Honduran soldiers combined, funded by the U.S. military. The ultimate result is a Honduran military force that was prominently funded by the U.S., who escorted the legitimate president out of the country and into exile.

After the initial coup, Secretary of State Clinton threatened to cut USD 150 million in aid (in addition to the USD 18 million in aid had already been suspended), but she refused to make a formal decision on the matter. Critics who disagreed with the U.S. cutting aid to Honduras suggested that such a policy would only further damage the already vulnerable economy and its poverty-stricken people. Six months later, in March of 2010, Clinton announced that all aid (USD 37 million) would be restored to Honduras. The initial cutting of aid signified that the U.S. would not tolerate a military coup in the region, however Clinton’s U-turn change in policy undermined this sentiment. The March 2010 restoration of aid was a major signal to the world that the U.S. had accepted the legitimacy of Porfirio Lobo’s government. Further loans have subsequently been given to Honduras by international financial institutions such as the World Bank signifying more consensus for Porfirio Lobo.

Lasting Repercussions

Now, less than a year after the election of Lobo which was made possible by Zelaya’s removal, a citizens’ movement by the name of FNRP (National Popular Resistance Front) has gained popularity for its continued opposition to the coup. The FNRP still demands the reinstatement of Zelaya and, according to a recent Peace, Earth and Justice News article, FNRP has now garnered over one million Honduran signatures calling for the establishment of a new constituent assembly and the re-founding of the Honduran state. The newfound support for this type of political movement signifies that the coup has not been forgotten in Honduras, as it seems to have been by much of the international community and media. FNRP has led nationwide strikes by Honduran workers, teachers, and students, including one that took place as recently as 7 September 2010.

Due in part to the continued U.S. support for the Lobo administration, other international actors have, however reluctantly, begun to accept Lobo as president. Indeed, the U.S. seems to have used its own political clout to persuade other world powers of the legitimacy of the Lobo administration. Unfortunately, Hondurans themselves—and not the United States—will have to bear the brunt of the problems brought on by the coup, including the worrying increase in human rights violations. The repercussions of Obama’s inconsistent diplomatic stance during the 2009 coup in Honduras have left Latin America questioning U.S. motives. A stronger stance against the Honduran coup could have signaled a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations, in which the kind of actions that have haunted the region in the past would no longer be tolerated. Most Latin American experts had thought that the coup in Latin America was a thing of the past, this small but powerful example showed that it is still possible and if democracy is not upheld it could happen again. What a dangerous precedent this sets in a region where democracy remains fragile. Yet again the U.S. failed to seize an opportunity to uphold democracy in a vulnerable region even with worldwide consensus in favor of returning Manuel Zelaya to his presidency.