Feature

Who’s Lobbying for the Coup?

How a Washington split on Honduras policy came to be.

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

Last Tuesday, as ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was finishing his fifth day crouched along the Honduras-Nicaragua border, hiding in coffee fields to avoid detection, an intimate gathering of ambassadors, officials, journalists, think tankers, and Latin America watchers convened at the Argentine Embassy in Washington. They were there to hear a member of Zelaya’s cabinet speak. From the assembled representatives of Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador, Enrique Reina, a former minister of communications who is now Zelaya’s choice as his ambassador to the United States, received a universally warm welcome. "Let the Honduran dictatorship know that no government that rises in the black night … will ever be recognized," thundered the Argentine ambassador to the United States, Hector Timerman.

But after the speeches, discussions around the room exposed cracks — not within Latin America, but in Washington, where the buzz on everyone’s lips was an "alarming" split in U.S. policy. Since Zelaya was ousted on June 28, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has played its hand carefully, calling for Zelaya to be reinstated and hewing close to the anti-coup consensus in the region, while distancing itself from a Honduran president who, most Latin America hands will tell you, carries less than stellar democratic credentials.

But if Obama’s nuanced policy looks a bit addled, Congress is downright schizophrenic. Legislators are divided between those who condemn the coup and others who argue that Honduras’s self-proclaimed new government, run by the former president of the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti, is constitutional after all.

"This is an issue that has split along partisan lines," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on hemispheric affairs. On the left are those who worry that a coup — any coup — is far too dangerous a precedent to condone in a region whose history is rife with them. On the right are those who worry about bringing back into power a man known for his populist rhetoric and alliances with Latin America’s most stridently leftist politicians, notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. "It’s reminiscent of the Cold War," Shifter observed.

Reinforcing the idea that a Washington power play is underway, some heavyweight D.C. names are working the issue on Capitol Hill, setting up meetings with House members and senators, taking out advertisements, and helping write congressional testimony for Honduras’s business community, who analysts say are standing behind Zelaya’s removal — or, at minimum, working to thwart his reinstatement.

At the top of that list is Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who is now a partner with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. In July, Davis took up the portfolio of the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (known by its Spanish acronym, CEAL). The Cormac Group’s Jonathan Slade signed on with the Association of Honduran Manufacturers (Asociación Hondoreña de Maquiladores, or AHM) in June. And Slade in turn hired Ambassador Roger Noriega, a former legislative aide to the late Rep. Jesse Helms and an assistant secretary for Western Hemispheric affairs from 2003 to 2005, to help open doors on the Hill for a week early last month.

With the U.S. Congress split over which side to favor, the crisis in Honduras looks no closer to resolution; Zelaya remains camped on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, talks being mediated by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias seem to have stalled, and no one is sure which way things will turn next. What’s clear is that what Washington does next will have an impact.

"It’s striking that both sides have looked to Washington for resolution to the crisis," explained Shifter. "I think it’s hard to see a resolution without U.S. support."

***

What (and who) is behind the lobbying has been the topic of immense speculation in Washington in recent weeks, beginning with Davis. His client, CEAL, is the equivalent to Honduras’s Chamber of Commerce, representing some of the country’s top business interests. And indeed, its president and vice president are "some of the wealthiest and most powerful in the country," according to Kurt Ver Beek, a professor at Michigan’s Calvin College who has lived in Honduras for two decades. "It’s hard to live here for 20 years and not know of them."

Davis’s connections — notably to the Clintons — weren’t lost on his client, either. CEAL Vice President Jesús Canahuati explained in an interview that Davis is "trying, with his contacts in Washington, to help a peaceful resolution. … Lanny Davis’s group is working toward assisting with their knowledge of Washington."

A few weeks earlier, on June 19, according to federally mandated lobbying records, AHM, which Canahuati heads, hired the Cormac Group to lobby for its cause. Cormac Group did not respond to an interview request to clarify why the lobbying firm was hired prior to the June 28 coup, but Canahuati told Foreign Policy that AHM simply asked Cormac to help arrange meetings for a delegation of Hondurans traveling to Washington. Hoping to enlist more regional expertise, Cormac’s Slade called on Noriega to set up meetings on the Hill, mostly with Republican legislators. Noriega told Foreign Policy they had little luck setting up meetings with administration officials, though they tried. Noriega also confirmed that the Honduran delegation’s visit took place between July 2 and July 10.

CEAL and AHM both claim they are advocating for the restoration of Honduran democracy, "providing facts relating to the removal of Mr. Zelaya," as Davis’s disclosure form puts it. The groups condemn the way the coup proceeded, but argue that Zelaya violated the Constitution in the days leading up to his removal — and that he was constitutionally removed by the Supreme Court and Congress prior to his ousting. "[T]he members of CEAL strongly believe that any analysis of the events of the past weeks must be viewed through the prism of the rule of law and the facts of Zelaya’s actions," Davis told a House subcommittee on July 10.

Members of the Honduran delegation to Washington, meanwhile — including members of AHM and CEAL, former members of the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court Justice Guillermo Pérez-Cadalso, and former foreign minister and attorney general Leonidas Rosa Bautista, who had helped draft the Honduran Constitution in the 1980s — contested the idea that Zelaya’s removal was, in fact, a coup. Testifying before the same U.S. House subcommittee as Davis, Pérez-Cadalso concluded that "the international community rushed to judgment before assessing all the facts and history. There is broad institutional consensus in Honduras the Zelaya violated the law and our Constitution. … Our civil society institutions also agree that Mr. Zelaya cannot return under current conditions."

Some analysts have suggested this position translates into pushing hard against Zelaya, and in effect, advocating on behalf of the Micheletti government. "The Honduran business elite were quite sure that the response [to the coup] was going to be cheering; now they feel betrayed," said Ver Beek.

"A lot of the business community was fed up [with Zelaya]. The military managed to get rid of him, and now they just don’t want to give anything," Shifter said. "They don’t want to risk that he’ll come back and cause a lot of what in their eyes was a lot of mischief."

Canahuati called any suggestion that AHM and CEAL are lobbying for Micheletti "a misconception." Noriega disagreed with the portrayal as well. "What they are asking is for folks to get smart about the Honduran Constitution and understand their reality. It’s more in favor of positive relations between the two countries and understanding about what’s going on in terms of their own Constitution and their own democracy."

***

Regardless of how it happened, many members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, are now questioning whether Zelaya should really be reinstated. Among them is the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere, Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), who traveled to Honduras in late July to meet with officials of the Micheletti government. "It’s important to remember that Manuel Zelaya’s removal was not a military coup. The Honduran Supreme Court, attorney general, Congress, and the Honduran people were right to confront Zelaya as he usurped the law and gutted their constitution," Mack’s July 23 statement reads.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has also opposed Zelaya’s return. "President Obama still insists that Mr. Zelaya be returned to power immediately, despite overwhelming evidence that his removal appears to have been in accordance with Honduran law. It is also becoming clear that Mr. Zelaya’s return would threaten both the rule of law and the integrity of Honduras’s constitutional democracy," DeMint said in a July 22 press release. The senator, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has helped hold up the nominations of two Obama administration appointees, Arturo Valenzuela for the State Department’s head of Western Hemisphere affairs, and Thomas Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. Both appointees have denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s reinstatement.

Resistance to Zelaya has found resonance not because of Honduras alone, but for the bigger geopolitical picture. Before his ousting, Zelaya made a significant and noticeable swing to the left, most notably allying himself with Venezuela’s Chávez and his allies, the "thugocrats of the Western Hemisphere" as Mack calls them. His attempts to change the Constitution looked dangerously reminiscent of similar referendums in Venezuela and Bolivia over the last year. That’s a leftward swing that many Republicans, such as Mack and DeMint, have viewed with alarm. It’s also another front to open on an Obama presidency that is stressed to the core over healthcare, its Supreme Court nominee, and a stubbornly slow recovery — to say nothing of a range of thorny diplomatic challenges from Iran to Middle East peace to climate change.

Zelaya, of course, is also pushing back — on the Obama administration and on Congress. His newly nominated ambassador, Reina, says that he has pursued meetings with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), among others. Zelaya is also said to have sent a letter to Obama, asking that the visas of several Micheletti government officials be revoked. Four such visas have been terminated since, though it’s unclear whether the letter (if it existed) was a determining factor. He had earlier met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at which point he agreed to enter into Arias-moderated talks.

The ousted president’s own actions likely haven’t helped his case. "Zelaya has been a gift [to the lobbyists], because if he had just laid low, he would have generated enormous sympathy. Instead, he has been acting and saying things that don’t inspire a lot of confidence. The lobbyists have used that effectively," Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue, explained. Zelaya flies on a Venezuelan plane and has spoken on Venezuelan television about his inevitable return and called for his supporters to resist the de facto regime. He calls his efforts to change the Constitution "a historic process" that "cannot be stopped." And his erratic crossings in and out of Honduras along the border have only exacerbated U.S. reluctance to push harder against the coup. "I don’t think there’s a great appetite to spend a lot of political resources for Zelaya’s return," Shifter said.

***

All the intrigue in Washington is fueling mumblings back in Honduras. "There are lots of rumors that the wealthy powerful families [such as those in charge of CEAL] pitched in money to make the coup happen; I have heard that from people who are close to those families," said Ver Beek, whose claims could not be independently verified.

Lynda Yanz, executive director of the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labor and women’s rights organization, told Foreign Policy that some manufacturers have been explicit about their support for the coup. "There’s pressure on workers, on unions, and on popular groups," she said in a telephone interview. "The reality is much stronger on the ground, where we’re not just talking about lobbying — where we’re talking about an industry that is supporting this coup."

With the political impasse reaching fever pitch, expectations of the United States are also running high. "There’s a perception in Latin America that the United States could reinstate Zelaya if it really wanted to," explained Shifter.

"The State Department remains in regular contact with President Zelaya and representatives of other social and political actors involved in the negotiation efforts," a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an e-mail today. But for now, the Obama administration seems content to let regional leaders deal with the Honduras mess themselves. "So as long as the mediation process continues, in our view, we should let it play its course," said Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley at the State Department’s Aug. 3 press briefing.

Looks like Zelaya might be camped out on the border for some time yet.

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