Obama Scores Regional Points with Zelaya's Return

Saturday, 31 October 2009 13:18 By Matthew Berger, Inter Press Service | name.

Obama Scores Regional Points with Zelaya
Pact could return Manuel Zelaya to power. (Photo: pepa garcia / flickr)

Washington - Following months of dithering on the part of the U.S., a delegation from the U.S. State Department brokered a deal Thursday between the ousted and interim governments of Honduras.

The deal, which is still subject to the approval of the Honduran Congress and a non-binding opinion from the country's Supreme Court, finally resolved the one issue on which talks had stalled the past several weeks – the restoration of ousted president Manuel Zelaya to the presidency for the remaining two plus months of his term.

The deal also represents a significant foreign policy victory for the Barack Obama administration. A U.S. delegation consisting of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, his deputy Craig Kelly and senior White House adviser on Latin America Dan Restrepo flew into Tegucigalpa Wednesday to try to rescue the then-foundering talks.

The U.S. had been subject to criticism both from other Western Hemisphere countries who felt the U.S. was not involved enough in the Honduran crisis and from opponents in Washington that supported the interim government.

"In the end the U.S. realised the clock was running out and the impasse was still in place. They needed to move; to take a more proactive position," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, told IPS Friday. "Hopefully in future situations they won't wait that long."

Friday, congratulations rolled in for the key role played by the U.S. negotiators in the resolution of the crisis that had dragged on since a coup ousted Zelaya on Jun. 28.

"Of particular note is the contribution of the United States and the Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, who, despite great personal cost, became deeply involved in the search for a solution to the problem," said Organisation of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza in a statement Friday.

Insulza also recognised the central roles played by other governments and leaders in the region, particularly Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, who kicked off the negotiations in San José earlier this summer by proposing a set of "San José Accords".

Thursday's agreement is a revised version of these accords.

Arias was similarly singled out by several U.S. politicians and officials who saw the deal as the successful culmination of an inter-American effort to overcome a government overthrow through peaceful means.

"This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy as embodied in the Inter-American Democratic Charter," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday from Islamabad. "I'm very proud that I was part of the process, that the United States was instrumental in the process."

The Obama administration had initially held off formally labeling the overthrow a coup, which would have meant automatically cutting off all but humanitarian aid to the country.

In early September, the administration changed course, officially calling the Jun. 28 events a "coup d'état" and cutting off some aid.

The U.S., and other countries, also said they would not be able to recognise elections, scheduled for Nov. 29, that take place under the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti, previously the speaker of Congress.

The firmness of the U.S.'s position on the elections had been questioned by some dissenting members of the U.S. Congress who see the de facto government as legitimate.

More troubling for the U.S.'s effort to take a clear position, though, was the expectations placed on it by other countries in the Americas who felt the U.S. should have been taking a decisive and forceful lead in straightening out the situation.

"The Latin American nations had been asking the U.S. to work with them, to be a partner. But when it came to the Honduran crisis, they asked the U.S. to take the lead and use a stick," said Shifter. "That irritated some people in the Obama administration. I think the fallout will leave kind of a bad taste for the U.S."

Shifter feels the U.S. is going to take a while to "find its niche" now that it is no longer the clear and sole hegemonic power in the hemisphere. "It's not calling the shots, but it's also not sitting on the sidelines," he said.

Most importantly, he says, the Obama administration eventually came to the realisation that the U.S. can be a member of a coalition of countries and still take decisive action.

"The lesson the Obama administration learns is that the U.S. can support regional and multilateral efforts" without being relegated to the background, he said. "They took some time finding that right role, but clearly the message that was sent down made a difference."

Amid the celebration of this unexpected pact, several organisations have pointed to the serious challenges that still remain – both those that have arisen because of the coup and those that existed prior to it.

"This is an important first step. It's a resolution to the immediate crisis," Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights in Latin America, told IPS Friday. "But the underlying issues still need to be addressed."

Among those issues, she says, are not only the erosion of rights that has arisen since the coup but the political exclusion, impunity and inequality that not even elections can immediately solve.

It also remains to be seen whether limits on freedoms of the press, speech and association that have been imposed, and then partially lifted, since the coup will be eased sufficiently to allow for fair elections.

The first challenge, though, is simply getting the deal all the way through Congress and successfully implemented.

"Success will depend on rigorous international monitoring of the accord's implementation," said U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chair of the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, in a statement Friday.

"There's a long way to go," notes Shifter, "and when it comes to Honduras anything is possible."

The main message many in Washington are taking from the agreement, though, is that a coup in a region with a history of coups was not allowed to stand and was overcome through peaceful, diplomatic means.

"This shows that Latin America is not going back to the days when U.S.-trained and funded military forces could overturn the will of the electorate," said Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot Friday.

Clinton also saw a turning point for the region. "I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that, having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order, overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue," she said.

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Last modified on Saturday, 31 October 2009 15:37