- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
That’s what the new Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wants to know. In a letter to the State Department last week, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) expressed her grave concern over reports that the administration was trying to pressure the Honduran government to absolve disgraced former President Manuel Zelaya of his crimes that precipitated the 2009 presidential crisis there.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen wrote, "It is troubling to consider that the importance of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Honduras would be undermined by attempts to coerce the Honduran government to take steps that run counter to its legal and constitutional processes in order to pave the way for Manuel Zelaya to return to Honduras without facing judicial consequences." She called on the administration to "immediately cease any efforts being taken to undercut the judicial system in Honduras by pressuring the current government to absolve Zelaya of his crimes."
Indeed, absolving Zelaya of his crimes would open the door to his return to Honduras, which appears to be the new administration policy on Honduras. In little-noticed remarks in a December 2010 trip to Tegucigalpa, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said that, "national reconciliation will advance further when Honduras is able to resolve the issue of the return of former President Zelaya so that the country can regain its place in the [Organization of American States]."
Yet advocating for Zelaya’s return is nothing short of reckless, resulting most assuredly in a return to rule of the mob and anarchy. Since his removal from power, the oligarch-turned radical-populist has shown no contrition for his abuses of power and disrespect for the country’s constitution. He has continued to wave the bloody shirt while in exile in the Dominican Republic. His actions then and now demonstrate he cares not a whit about endangering Honduran lives in the service of his political agenda.
Zelaya was removed from power in June 2009 by the order of the Supreme Court for his continued defiance of the Court and the National Assembly in trying to convene an illegal constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution (as Hugo Chavez and other radical populists have done). He was arrested by the military and — in a bid to avoid violence — put on a plane out of the country. The constitutional successor — the head of the National Assembly — served as interim president until national elections in November 2009 brought current President Porfirio Lobo to power.
Supporters of President Zelaya — among them Hugo Chavez — cried foul, branding it a "coup d’etat," and demanding Zelaya’s unconditional return to power. After first siding with Chavez, the administration wisely switched its position to support the scheduled November 2009 election for Zelaya’s successor. It has been working assiduously since then for Honduras’s reintegration to the Organization of American States, from where it had been suspended under pressure from other leftist governments. But now, it appears administration policy has switched again: pushing for Zelaya’s return to the country, even though such a move would be pouring gasoline on the proverbial fire.
The administration policy on Honduras has been further muddled by cables released by WikiLeaks. Critics of Zelaya’s ouster have seized on one signed by U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens dated July 9, 2009, that provides an open-and-shut case that what transpired in Honduras was a coup d’etat. They have criticized the administration for ignoring this analysis and the attendant consequences it would have entailed. But the fact is, rather than Holy Writ, the Llorens’s cable only raises more questions than it answers, as it is less a disinterested analysis than a political argument.
Building the illegality case may very well be what Llorens thought his bosses wanted to hear at the time, but to do it Llorens had to transform Zelaya’s very real defiance of the Supreme Court into allegations and the fact that he was pursuing an illegal effort to rewrite the country’s constitution became supposition. In any case, the illegality argument lost it utility after the Administration switched its position in favor of electing Zelaya’s successor.
But questions about Llorens’s tenure in Honduras are raised by other leaked cables, including a scathing critique of Zelaya by outgoing Ambassador Charles Ford, a career officer who served three years in Tegucigalpa prior to Llorens. Ford called Zelaya erratic, untrustworthy, and under the influence of Venezuela, Cuba, and organized crime, adding that "[He] resents the very existence of the Congress, the Attorney General and Supreme Court."
He then includes this prescient kicker: ‘The last year and a half of the Zelaya administration will be, in my view, extraordinarily difficult for our bilateral relationship. His pursuit of immunity from the numerous activities of organized crime carried out in his administration will cause him to threaten the rule of law and institutional stability"
Yet until nearly one week before Zelaya’s ouster on orders of the Supreme Court, Llorens, even while recognizing Zelaya’s "erratic behavior" was driving the country into a profound crisis and after being told by a Honduran general that the military situation was "intolerable" because Zelaya had ordered them to organize the illegal constituent assembly, Llorens continued to believe that no confrontation was imminent.
It is these judgments and actions that continue to raise questions about administration policy in Honduras and whether it has the appropriate tools in place to carry it out. The new chairman of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), for one, has his doubts on the latter and has promised to investigate. Indeed, it seems the time is right to hold a hearing on Honduras to determine exactly what U.S. policy is meant to achieve there: Is it to help an ally move past its recent national crisis caused by a rogue president trampling the constitution? Or is it to force that ally to compromise its own legal code and accept back into a fragile environment the very source of its recent instability? Sounds like a conversation worth having — and soon.
(Full disclosure: In July 2009, I helped to advise a group of Honduran leaders who came to Washington to explain the constitutionality of President Zelaya’s removal from power.)