The June 28 military coup d'etat that overthrew Honduras' democratically elected president provided President Obama with "a golden opportunity...to make a clear break with the past and show that he is unequivocally siding with democracy," as Costa Rica's former vice president put it. However, the U.S.'s recognition of the sham election Honduras' de facto regime is staging on Sunday makes it quite clear that Obama is choosing instead to side with the far-right Republicans who support the coup.
In the wake of the coup that overthrew Honduran president Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the Guardian's Calvin Tucker observes that there had been some promising signs that Obama was going to remain true to his pledge to "seek a new chapter of engagement" in Latin America. Despite some initial waffling by the State Department, Obama spoke out in strong terms against Zelaya's overthrow, saying that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections." The U.S. backed a Costa Rican-brokered compromise that would have seen Zelaya returned to office, at the helm of a "unity government." All non-humanitarian U.S. aid was suspended to the de facto regime, as were the U.S. visas of the coup leaders. The State Department indicated that the US would "not be able to support" the outcome of the elections out of concern that they would not be "free, fair and transparent." And finally, during a visit to Honduras by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in late October, the coup leaders agreed to sign the U.S. backed agreement providing for Zelaya's return.
This firm U.S. reaction apparently "privately stunned" the coup leaders, who were sure "this would never have happened if the Republicans had still been in power," according to the New Yorker's William Finnegan.
Indeed, the coup leaders, who along with their allies such as the Latin American Business Council have spent at least six hundred thousand dollars on Washington lobbyists and lawyers, count amongst their supporters several prominent congressional Republicans, including South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.
DeMint had been leading efforts to block key diplomatic appointments in Latin America, and earlier this month, the Obama administration succumbed to this pro-coup Republican pressure, announcing that it will after all recognize Sunday's election, and not insist on the return of the legitimate president. On November 4, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon announced on CNN that "the formation of the National Unity Government is apart from the reinstatement of President Zelaya" and that the Honduran Congress will decide when and if Zelaya is reinstated.
DeMint took credit for the change in U.S. policy, releasing a press statement declaring "Senator secures commitment for U.S. to back Nov. 29 elections even if Zelaya is not reinstated." In the statement, DeMint said he was
happy to report the Obama Administration has finally reversed its misguided Honduran policy and will fully recognize the November 29th elections... Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Shannon have assured me that the U.S. will recognize the outcome of the Honduran elections regardless of whether Manuel Zelaya is reinstated.
The 23 Latin American and Caribbean nations of the Rio Group do not recognize Sunday's election. However the Obama administration is now going ahead in recognizing the vote held in the midst of what Amnesty International has characterized as a "human rights crisis," marked by an"increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country." Since Zelaya's overthrow, over 3,500 people have been illegally detained, over 600 have been beaten and dozens have been killed, according to the Committee of Families of the Disappeared (COFADEH), with media workers, human rights defenders and female protesters particularly targeted, according to Amnesty.
The only two presidential candidates on the ballot supported the coup that ousted the elected president. The leading opposition candidate, Carlos Reyes, recently withdrew his nomination for the presidency, calling the election fraudulent, and hundreds of candidates for congressional and municipal seats have also withdrawn from the election.
And Tucker notes that
Trade unions and social movements calling for a boycott of the election are facing mafia-style threats, with the regime's chief of police boasting that he has compiled a blacklist of "all those of the left".
At the same time, Honduras' big business federation, which supported the coup, is reportedly offering "cash discounts" to Hondurans for voting in the election.
The fact that such an election has won the support of the Obama administration does not bode well for the president's "new chapter" of U.S.-Latin America relations.