While Honduras is on the brink of a civil war, politics-as-usual in Washington, D.C. threaten, quite literally, to block US support for democracy in that country. It also threatens to squelch democracy here as well. On Thursday, the office of Sen. Richard Lugar sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding clarification on the State Department's intentions with regard to Honduras. The same letter also noted that providing such a detailed clarification would "improve the prospects of confirming" several of Obama's diplomatic nominations for Latin America.
Lugar's letter comes on the heels of outright threats from fellow Republican Sen. Jim DeMint to delay a Senate vote on a key State Department post for Latin America because of U.S. support for ‘leftist' Zelaya, signaling that Lugar and other Republicans are aligning on this strategy to block U.S. pressure to reinstate Zelaya and restore Honduran democracy.
Thursday also brought to bear the most violent repression by coup forces in Honduras since Zelaya's removal on June 28th. In Honduras and Nicaragua members of La Via Campesina - a global network representing more than 150 million small farmers - reported that tear gas and rubber and wooden bullets were being shot at unarmed protesters from helicopters and other aircraft. Multiple human rights and civil society organizations are reporting that journalists and other civilians are being targeted in the conflict areas, particularly near the border with Nicaragua, and that hundreds of people have been injured, some quite severely. The prisons are filled with detainees who oppose the de facto regime. More than 150 people were arrested on Thursday alone, including minors as young as two years.
U.S. pressure (or lack thereof) on the coup regime to relinquish power plays a major role in the possible outcome in Honduras. Strong sanctions would likely bring an immediate halt to the de facto government's ability to maintain power. Already the U.S. State Department has condemned the coup, cut off $16.5 million in military aid, placed a hold on any new development aid, and most recently, revoked the diplomatic visas of four members of the de facto regime.
But human rights organizations the world over have called on the Obama Administration to do more, including terminating all existing aid and cutting off trade and remittances. Thus far, the U.S. has refused to take a strong position that explicitly recognizes the events of June 28th as a coup, which according to U.S. law, would require the suspension of all relations - trade, aid, or otherwise - with Honduras. Secretary Clinton stated on June 30 that "We are withholding any formal legal determination," on whether or not a coup had transpired.
The fact that Sen. Lugar and his fellow Republicans are so blatantly playing politics with this grave crisis is appaling. Their efforts to persuade the Administration to step back from taking the legally required action threatens democracy and the rule of law in Honduras and here at home. Furthermore, attempts to manipulate the Senate voting process in an effort to influence the State Department's foreign policy decisions are wholly improper. Delays in Congressional activity, at the expense of public time and money, as a result of political disputes between branches of government should be condemned by the American public as a subversion of democracy.
Perhaps influenced by right wing pressure, the Administration is walking a fine line between pushing certain policies while pulling for key appointments and legislation from political rivals in Congress. Though it may seem that the Administration must weigh the odds of pursuing one policy at the expense of another, the reality is that not acting on the crisis in Honduras results in a lose-lose situation for both foreign and domestic policy.
It has been said that Obama's response to this crisis will indicate whether or not the U.S. is at a turning point in its relations with Latin America. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. actively backed dictatorships and military coups throughout the region. Indeed, Sen. Lugar's letter to Secretary Clinton correctly remarked that the situation in Honduras "gives rise to questions regarding U.S. foreign policy" - essentially that not backing this particular coup would mark a major change in our approach to the region. A decision to stay the course of supporting right wing military regimes in Central America would represent a setback to both democracy and U.S. relations with the region, not to mention the casualties of human rights and dignity. Moreover, the lack of a swift resolution to the crisis in Honduras has left the conflict brewing and intensifying; the country is now on the brink of all out war.
The real choice for the Obama Administration is whether or not to engage in the tug-of-war between pushing real reform and bowing down to the perceived might of political, social, and economic ideologues. What is the advantage of passing legislation or confirming nominees if the end result is bound up in a system corrupted by interests not responsive or accountable to the public? By rejecting the legitimacy of threats from Senators Lugar and DeMint and upholding Honduran democracy with strong sanctions against the Micheletti regime, President Obama can lead the U.S. into a new era of support for Latin American democracy and sovereignty while also working toward rebuilding a weakened democracy at home.