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How the Obama Admin Turned its Back on Democracy in Honduras (and Missed a Chance for a Real "Change" in Foreign Policy)

Why Obama has not taken a much stronger stand against the Honduras coup is a lingering mystery.
 
 
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We’ve recently passed the one-year mark since the coup in Honduras against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. Over the past year, the White House’s handling of the coup has become seriously embarrassing. It has needlessly strained U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere and has placed a serious blotch on the Obama administration’s human rights record.

Back in January, I gave the White House a “D“ for its response to the coup. Even though it totally botched its approach to the elections in the country last November—reversing its demand that Zelaya be reinstated and allowed to serve the end of his term before legitimate elections for a new Honduran president could take place—I credited the White House for its early condemnations:

One day after Zelaya’s ouster, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Zelaya’s removal “should be condemned by all.” The following day, President Obama declared, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras.“

While things grew steadily worse after those statements, I argued against giving the White House an “F” for its response. My rationale at the time was that the Obama administration’s approach was distinctly better than what we might have expected from the Bush cabal:

Some progressives, disgusted by the White House response, may be tempted to contend that it reflects a Latin American foreign policy that is even worse than that of President George W. Bush’s. This would be an error. The stances of Bush appointees such as former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich—who lauded the coup as a necessary measure against the “expansion of Chavist authoritarianism“—shows that the position of the last administration would likely have been far worse than that of the present one. But the prospect that things could be even grimmer than they are now does not mean that the White House deserves passing marks for its efforts.

These days, I’m reconsidering my position and wondering if their initial statements against the coup only gave undeserved credibility to Hillary Clinton and company in later promoting an unacceptable state of affairs. Had White House officials, like Otto Reich, supported the military from the start, the United States would have no legitimacy in arguing that we now need to forgive and forget.

Sadly, that’s currently the Clinton position. In early June, she defied the rest of the hemisphere by arguing at the Organization of American States that Honduras should be readmitted to the body: “Now it’s time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” she said.

In addition to ignoring major problems with the elections last November, those in the “move on” camp have a terrible tendency to overlook the rash of human rights abuses that have taken place in Honduras since the coup. Conn Hallinan recently noted over at Foreign Policy In Focus:

The U.S. has been silent about the fact that the new president, Porfirio Lobo, has overseen a reign of terror that, since the June 28, 2009 coup, has seen the assassination of some 130 anti-government activists...The murders bear a close resemblance to death squad assassinations carried out under military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80…

“We are living in a state of terror,” says human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, a former director of research projects at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Almendares currently runs a free clinic in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

The Center for Constitutional Rights adds:

Four judges, including the president of Honduran Judges for Democracy, were fired in May 2010 for criticizing the illegality of the coup. Two of them went on a widely-supported hunger strike in the nation’s capital. Judges who participated in public demonstrations in favor of the de facto government remain in power.

Finally, at the Guardian, my colleague Joseph Huff-Hannon notes the special persecution of journalists:

Indeed, in 2010 at least eight journalists have been killed in mysterious circumstances in Honduras, all of them critics of the coup and/or of powerful business interests in the country. None of those murders have been solved, and Reporters Without Borders has called Honduras theworld’s most dangerous country for journalists in the first half of 2010.

I think it is safe to say, This is not what democracy looks like.

Why Obama has not taken a much stronger stand against the coup is a lingering mystery to me. Latin America was unanimous in its condemnations, and the crisis presented the new administration an opportunity to set a different tone with the region. The United States could have promoted unity and shored up some pro-democracy credibility by staying firm in insisting that Zelaya—who only had a few months of his term left to serve anyway!—be reinstated. In terms of domestic politics, the president has traditionally been given wide latitude in dealing with these types of foreign crises. And, unlike with Iraq or Afghanistan, it is highly improbable that the matter would ever have been a serious issue for Obama at the polls.

As it is, I see U.S. policy toward Honduras as a victory for State Department hacks and old foreign policy hands from the Clinton administrations of the 1990s. It is tone deaf with regard to the region—and as far as democracy and human rights are concerned, it does not speak well of their biases.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via DemocracyUprising.com. This column originally appeared in Dissent.
 
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