Honduras Deal Poses Risk to Obama

Honduras Deal Poses Risk to Obama


When the U.S. last week finally brokered a deal between ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and the man who replaced him following the June 28 coup, President Roberto Micheletti, observers wondered how the Obama Administration had won Micheletti's agreement. That's because the pact allowed for Zelaya to be restored to office before Honduras' Nov. 29 presidential election — a prospect Micheletti had fiercely opposed. But as the dust settles, the more common question this week is, What was Zelaya thinking when he signed this accord?

The Oct. 30 agreement, in fact, leaves it to the Honduran congress to decide whether the leftist Zelaya should be restored before the presidential vote (in which he's not a candidate). But Zelaya, still holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa since sneaking back into the country from exile in September, appears to have grossly miscalculated the odds of the legislature voting in his favor, and that leaves a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the accord. On Friday, Zelaya told Radio Globo that the accord was "dead," adding that there was "no sense in deceiving Hondurans." (See pictures of the protests in Honduras.)

It ought to have been apparent to Zelaya that when the pact was inked, only a quarter of the chamber's 128 deputies backed his reinstatement — even his ruling Liberal Party is split on the issue — and the math has barely budged since then. U.S. officials say they hoped that four months after the coup, the congress would be less of an anti-Zelaya hothouse and therefore more amenable to letting him finish the last three months of his term as the democratically elected President. But "restoring Zelaya creates too many domestic political complications," says restoration opponent Adolfo Facusse, a Honduran textile baron and head of the National Industrial Association. "The politicians fear it will be seen by their constituents as an evil thing." Says Honduran political analyst Efrain Diaz, "It's not very clear anymore that this was a smart deal for Zelaya to accept."

Zelaya and his backers suggest they were led to believe the accord made his restoration a precondition for international recognition of the results of the Nov. 29 election, and that the endorsement of congress was a mere formality. "The agreement didn't say the elections could be used as clothing to disguise a coup," says Jorge Arturo Reina, Zelaya's U.N. ambassador and his representative on a commission monitoring implementation of the accord. (U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is also on the committee.) But the Zelaya camp's reading of the deal may have been naively optimistic. That much was clear this week when the deal's chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, confirmed that under its terms, the U.S. would recognize the election result even if congress declines to restore Zelaya. Shannon's statement prompted a frustrated Zelaya to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a letter asking her to "clarify to the Honduran people if the [U.S.] position condemning the coup d'état has been changed for modified." (Read "Honduran Tourism: Selling Against a Coup.")

The coup leaders insist Zelaya was ousted because he had defied a Supreme Court ruling against holding a referendum on constitutional reform, which they claim sought to lift a ban on presidential re-election — although this was not stated in the referendum question. The U.S. joined the international community in condemning the coup as an affront to Latin America's fledgling democracies, and demanded Zelaya's reinstatement. To back that position, it cut off more than $30 million in aid to Micheletti's de facto government, suspended U.S. entry visas for the coup's supporters and threatened not to recognize the election results. Still, the coupsters — backed by conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress angry over Obama's stance — dug in, even while acknowledging that it was wrong to toss out Zelaya militarily.

As a result, Washington for weeks now has been looking for a way to bless the November balloting with or without Zelaya's restoration. Zelaya had hoped that Shannon would also persuade the leading candidate in the presidential race, Porfirio Lobo, to instruct legislators from his opposition National Party to endorse Zelaya's reinstatement under the new accord. But in an interview with TIME, Lobo made it clear that this would not happen. "Micheletti and Zelaya made a pact, and as long as that pact is carried out the world has to recognize the elections as valid," he says. "So at this point, what does it matter which of them is in office when the election is held?" Lobo also knows that as long as the vote is sanctioned by the U.S., from whom Honduras gets the lion's share of its trade and aid, he needn't lose too much sleep over the fact that the rest of the world will probably still refuse to recognize his election if Zelaya is not restored.

Congress was supposed to have voted on restoration by the end of this week, but the deputies are demanding more time to deliberate. The accord also requires the creation, by week's end, of a multiparty "unity" government to run Honduras until a new President takes office on Jan. 27. But the ongoing dispute over whether Zelaya or Micheletti will be President until then raises doubts over the appointment of such a government. If Zelaya is not restored, his supporters have vowed a boycott of the election and perhaps street demonstrations to impede it. In the plaza in front of Congress, backers of Zelaya, wearing his trademark cowboy hats, this week shouted, "No restoration, no election!" Says Marlin Saucedo, 45, owner of a small textile business, "We're not going to the voting booths like sheep for the oligarchs who led the coup."

The Obama Administration is technically correct when it argues that last week's pact allows it to recognize the Nov. 29 election even without Zelaya's restoration — a result that would let Obama wipe his hands of the Honduras mess while getting U.S. conservatives off his back. But analysts like Diaz warn that to Latin America and the rest of the world, "That would just return us to the same situation as before, leaving Honduras to face the international community with little credibility." Solis herself said this week after arriving in Honduras that "what happens here has implications regionally." And it could certainly have negative implications for Obama's credibility in the region if he is perceived to have brokered a deal that allowed a military coup to succeed. Then again, the U.S. President could always shift the blame by pointing out that it was Zelaya that signed the deal.

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