Briefing Book

Planning for the Worst in Honduras

Dark clouds are gathering over negotiations on the country's future.

GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

It is tempting to be dismissive of the ongoing deadlock in Honduras. Since a coup took the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, out of power on June 28, a drama of near comic-opera proportions has ensued. How this opus will end is anyone’s guess, but that is exactly why the Obama administration would do well to plan for every possible outcome from good to awful. What is clear, though, is that Honduras’s crisis will have far-ranging implications for the region and for U.S. policy in Latin America.

In negotiations last weekend, Costa Rica’s tenacious, Nobel Prize-winning president, Óscar Arias, proposed a seven-point solution that is backed by the international community and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Zelaya supports the plan, which includes his reinstatement (though it would take the military out of his hands and bar him from changing the Constitution to try and stay in office). The de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti, however, has signaled its willingness to negotiate on only six of Arias’s seven points; Micheletti has steadfastly refused to accept Zelaya’s return as president.

As Arias said on Sunday, the stakes for failing to reach a settlement are clear: violence or even civil war could erupt in Honduras.

Preventing that will be a tall order. So far, Washington has walked a careful line — condemning Zelaya’s ouster and eschewing the term "coup" to avoid triggering complete cuts in aid to Honduras, for example. The United States has left its ambassador in Tegucigalpa and kept its distance from Zelaya, whose questionable conduct in defiance of the Supreme Court and Congress provoked the institutional crisis that led to the coup.

The balancing act is about to get a lot harder. The Obama administration must now show its commitment to democracy, work with Latin American neighbors, and simultaneously push for a pragmatic solution that muffles any impending instability. And no matter what, the administration had better have a Plan B for how to handle Honduras.

In the best scenario, the Micheletti government would agree to the contours of the Arias plan, allowing Zelaya to return for the few months preceding new elections. Zelaya would lead a national unity government, but with significantly limited authority and amnesty for political crimes committed by either side. Such a compromise would send the message to an increasingly politically unsettled Latin America that coups (however ambiguously defined) will not be allowed to stand. It would keep the United States and much of the international community on the "right side of history," as Obama likes to say. It also stands the best chance at calming the high passions and volatile conditions in Honduras.

But how realistic and viable is such an outcome? Two less benign scenarios are also in the offing. In the first one, Micheletti does not budge on Zelaya’s reinstatement. Instead, he tries to withstand international pressure and isolation until the completion of the fall elections, when a new president would regain the legitimacy necessary to win back normal diplomatic and economic relations. In this scenario, Zelaya might return, as he has already tried to do, risking greater unrest in Honduras. The Obama administration would need to focus first and foremost on not letting the situation escalate. That would mean pressuring the acting government to respond to unrest effectively but peacefully, in a manner respectful of human rights.

In the second scenario, even if the Arias plan does go forward and Zelaya returns under the conditions set forth in the agreement, there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly. Zelaya might do precisely what the Micheletti government fears, which is to defy the Arias plan, as he previously defied the Supreme Court and Congress, and set about on another unconstitutional power grab. This is a real risk, but one that can best be mitigated by a vigilant international presence aimed at constraining Zelaya’s behavior. Making sure the upcoming elections are fair and credible will help. Washington might have to dig its hands in deeper than it would like — certainly more deeply than it has done to date.

Of course, the trickiest detail of all is the fact that the ousted and now foreign-backed Zelaya is no friend of the United States, nor of democracy. Since 2008, the Honduran president has allied himself with a U.S. foreign-policy nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Obama has openly recognized this fact, which has earned the administration even more praise for maintaining its principled stand on the Honduras crisis. But Chávez has been, and will continue to be, a problem as he seeks to curtail Washington’s influence. Obama’s response to the coup has helped neutralize the Venezuelan strongman. Had the U.S. president not been as firm, Chávez would have seized on Washington’s wobbliness to come out politically stronger, claiming the moral high ground. The right U.S. response in Honduras now will make Obama more effective and credible in responding to other antidemocratic actions later, whether in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Whatever might be said about Zelaya’s own responsibility in bringing about the crisis, his forced removal from the country by the military is no minor detail. It is a rupture in the democratic order that touched a nerve in a region that has long struggled to keep its various armed forces under control. That history makes it all the more urgent to heed Arias’s ominous warning and resolve this crisis peacefully now.

It is tempting to be dismissive of the ongoing deadlock in Honduras. Since a coup took the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, out of power on June 28, a drama of near comic-opera proportions has ensued. How this opus will end is anyone’s guess, but that is exactly why the Obama administration would do well to plan for every possible outcome from good to awful. What is clear, though, is that Honduras’s crisis will have far-ranging implications for the region and for U.S. policy in Latin America.

In negotiations last weekend, Costa Rica’s tenacious, Nobel Prize-winning president, Óscar Arias, proposed a seven-point solution that is backed by the international community and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Zelaya supports the plan, which includes his reinstatement (though it would take the military out of his hands and bar him from changing the Constitution to try and stay in office). The de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti, however, has signaled its willingness to negotiate on only six of Arias’s seven points; Micheletti has steadfastly refused to accept Zelaya’s return as president.

As Arias said on Sunday, the stakes for failing to reach a settlement are clear: violence or even civil war could erupt in Honduras.

Preventing that will be a tall order. So far, Washington has walked a careful line — condemning Zelaya’s ouster and eschewing the term "coup" to avoid triggering complete cuts in aid to Honduras, for example. The United States has left its ambassador in Tegucigalpa and kept its distance from Zelaya, whose questionable conduct in defiance of the Supreme Court and Congress provoked the institutional crisis that led to the coup.

The balancing act is about to get a lot harder. The Obama administration must now show its commitment to democracy, work with Latin American neighbors, and simultaneously push for a pragmatic solution that muffles any impending instability. And no matter what, the administration had better have a Plan B for how to handle Honduras.

In the best scenario, the Micheletti government would agree to the contours of the Arias plan, allowing Zelaya to return for the few months preceding new elections. Zelaya would lead a national unity government, but with significantly limited authority and amnesty for political crimes committed by either side. Such a compromise would send the message to an increasingly politically unsettled Latin America that coups (however ambiguously defined) will not be allowed to stand. It would keep the United States and much of the international community on the "right side of history," as Obama likes to say. It also stands the best chance at calming the high passions and volatile conditions in Honduras.

But how realistic and viable is such an outcome? Two less benign scenarios are also in the offing. In the first one, Micheletti does not budge on Zelaya’s reinstatement. Instead, he tries to withstand international pressure and isolation until the completion of the fall elections, when a new president would regain the legitimacy necessary to win back normal diplomatic and economic relations. In this scenario, Zelaya might return, as he has already tried to do, risking greater unrest in Honduras. The Obama administration would need to focus first and foremost on not letting the situation escalate. That would mean pressuring the acting government to respond to unrest effectively but peacefully, in a manner respectful of human rights.

In the second scenario, even if the Arias plan does go forward and Zelaya returns under the conditions set forth in the agreement, there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly. Zelaya might do precisely what the Micheletti government fears, which is to defy the Arias plan, as he previously defied the Supreme Court and Congress, and set about on another unconstitutional power grab. This is a real risk, but one that can best be mitigated by a vigilant international presence aimed at constraining Zelaya’s behavior. Making sure the upcoming elections are fair and credible will help. Washington might have to dig its hands in deeper than it would like — certainly more deeply than it has done to date.

Of course, the trickiest detail of all is the fact that the ousted and now foreign-backed Zelaya is no friend of the United States, nor of democracy. Since 2008, the Honduran president has allied himself with a U.S. foreign-policy nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Obama has openly recognized this fact, which has earned the administration even more praise for maintaining its principled stand on the Honduras crisis. But Chávez has been, and will continue to be, a problem as he seeks to curtail Washington’s influence. Obama’s response to the coup has helped neutralize the Venezuelan strongman. Had the U.S. president not been as firm, Chávez would have seized on Washington’s wobbliness to come out politically stronger, claiming the moral high ground. The right U.S. response in Honduras now will make Obama more effective and credible in responding to other antidemocratic actions later, whether in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Whatever might be said about Zelaya’s own responsibility in bringing about the crisis, his forced removal from the country by the military is no minor detail. It is a rupture in the democratic order that touched a nerve in a region that has long struggled to keep its various armed forces under control. That history makes it all the more urgent to heed Arias’s ominous warning and resolve this crisis peacefully now.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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