The mediation effort that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton arranged to try to resolve the crisis in Honduras, which began when a military coup removed Honduran President Mel Zelaya more than four weeks ago, has failed. It is now time – some would say overdue – for the Latin American governments to play their proper role.
They should take the necessary steps to implement the unanimous mandate from the Organisation of American States: "the immediate and unconditional return" of Zelaya to his elected office.
This can be done with or without the help of the Obama administration. It is important to note that the last two political crises in the region were resolved without any significant input from Washington. The first was in March of last year, when Colombia bombed and invaded Ecuadorian territory, in an operation targeting Colombian Farc guerillas.
Latin America was united in its response, condemning the violation of Ecuador's sovereignty. The crisis was resolved at a Rio Group meeting on 7 March, where President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia apologised and pledged not to violate the sovereignty of any country again.
In the summer of last year, rightwing Bolivians opposed to the government of President Evo Morales engaged in a series of violent actions that raised the spectre of a separatist civil war. The heads of state of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) met in Santiago and unanimously declared their support for the Morales government. This unified regional response, and the ensuing investigations of right-wing violence sponsored by Unasur, helped put an end to the insurrectionary hopes of the Bolivian right.
It was too much to expect that a mediation process set up by Hillary Clinton would resolve the Honduran crisis. The US government has too many interests that conflict with what the rest of the region wants and needs.
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First, there is the US military base in Honduras, the only such base in Central America. The constitutional reform process that Zelaya hoped to set in motion could easily lead to voters' rejection of foreign troops on their soil. However much our government may prefer democracy as a political system, when there is a choice between democracy and a military base, Washington's track record is not a good one.
Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, complained to Clinton that the mediation process should be within the framework of the OAS resolution, and therefore should not impose conditions on Zelaya's return – especially, he said, a coalition government with the people who overthrew the government. This was one of the conditions proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whom Clinton recruited to mediate.
Amorim also noted that any negotiated solution that was seen as rewarding the coup perpetrators would increase the threat of military coups in other countries. These concerns reflect Latin America's strong and unambiguous interest in a complete reversal of the coup. They will have to live with the consequences of failure.
In Washington, by contrast, we have a muddle of conflicting interests: powerful lobbyists such as Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliff, who are close to Clinton and are leading the coup government's strategy; the Republican right, including members of Congress who openly support the coup; and new cold warriors of both parties in the Congress, the state department and White House who see Zelaya as a threat because of his co-operation with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and other left governments.
No wonder Washington's response to the coup has sent so many mixed signals. The first White House statement did not even criticise the coup, and the state department still won't officially call it a coup. And Clinton has repeatedly refused to say that "restoring the democratic order" in Honduras means bringing Zelaya back – much less unconditionally. It took three weeks for the administration to threaten a foreign aid cutoff, and Washington is alone in keeping its ambassador in place.
Latin America gave Washington a chance to use its influence with the Honduran elite to restore democracy there. It didn't work. Now it is Latin America's turn to take the lead. Hopefully, Washington will follow.