Unresolved in Honduras

Unresolved in Honduras

News of a negotiated "resolution" to the crisis in Honduras is no doubt being met with rounds of diplomatic back-slapping across the hemisphere, but such celebrations would be a bit premature. In other words, we’ll be lucky if this is the last we hear of Manuel Zelaya. [Full disclosure: I helped a Honduran business delegation travel to Washington in July 2009 to brief U.S. policymakers on the crisis there.]

Negotiations to end the crisis that began June 28 when the oligarch-turned-leftist populist was legally deposed have culminated with agreement on, primarily, the creation of a national reconciliation government; no amnesty for political crimes; international recognition of the November 29th presidential elections; renunciation of any effort to organize a constitutional assembly to rewrite the Constitution  (Zelaya’s mimic of Hugo Chavez in contravention of Honduran law that led to his removal); and a call to the international community to lift economic sanctions against Honduras.

But on the most controversial point of the whole affair ­ whether to unconditionally reinstate Zelaya to office to serve out the rest of his term, as he has been demanding and the interim government has steadfastly refused ­ the negotiators punted.  Actually, they tossed that hot potato back to the National Congress, which must now vote on his return, in consultations with the Supreme Court.

These are the same institutions that Zelaya has been confronting and antagonizing for the past year.  The same National Congress that back in June voted nearly unanimously (including members of Zelaya’s own party) in favor of a decree censuring Zelaya for "repeated violations against the Constitution and laws of the Republic."  And the same Supreme Court that ordered his arrest by the military for his illegal actions and disregard for their rulings.

So, even while we’ll have to wait and see what happens, it would certainly seem unlikely that there would be such a profound change of heart in these two institutions to see fit to restore him to office, if only for a few months.

And then what?  If they maintain their opposition to Zelaya’s return to office, will Zelaya respect their verdict?

The answer is a likely a resounding "no". Recklessness and provocation have defined Zelaya’s tenure in office.  Egged on by Hugo Chavez, with the assistance of the Cuban security apparatus, Zelaya is not about to go gently into that good night should Congress and the Supreme Court uphold their opposition to his returning.  He has already demonstrated he has the capacity and the will to put his personal interests over the national well-being.  One shudders at the thought of the chaos he can still create.

This puts a special onus on the Obama administration. Obviously, what opened the door to the compromise was their dropping of their ill-advised ultimatum that Zelaya’s return was unconditional and that the administration would not recognize the results of the November elections unless Zelaya was reinstated — a position that put them on the same side of the issue as Chavez and Fidel Castro.

But now they are on much more solid ground putting the final verdict on Zelaya back in the hands of the Honduran people and their representatives in Congress. This means that once that verdict is rendered, they need to immediately provide full support for the elections, and, more importantly, prevent Zelaya from any attempts to bring the whole temple down around him.

Even if in the unlikely event the courts and Congress move to reinstate Zelaya, he will still need to be closely watched so that he causes no more damage to the country, and the Obama administration, as brokers of this deal (three senior officials were in Honduras this week), bear a special responsibility on this.

The Honduran crisis is not over, but the administration has at least moved away from its untenable early stance and is in a much better position to affect a positive outcome.

What happens after the Nov. 29 election is another story. The administration’s initial aping of the Chavez line on Honduras will not be soon forgotten across the hemisphere. A situation where a small, pro-American country attempted to stop a Chavez wannabe from running roughshod over its democratic institutions and installing himself in perpetual power was not met with support from the United States, but outright opposition and retribution. In this way, the stark differences with Chavez in our vision for this hemisphere ­ statism and class conflict versus freedom and opportunity for all ­ were regrettably blurred.  The citizens of the Americas need a clear alternative to the snake oil that Chavez is selling and by muddying that distinction, let’s hope we haven’t done too much harm to our interests in our own neighborhood.