President Obama is making a big mistake in coddling the dictatorship in Honduras, and putting his administration at odds with the rest of the hemisphere. It also looks terrible to the world that his government so easily abandons its professed commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
President Mel Zelaya of Honduras was overthrown by the military on June 28. Most of Latin America saw this as a threat to democracy in the hemisphere, immediately condemned the coup, and strongly supported Zelaya's return. The Organization of American States as well as the General Assembly of the United Nations called for Zelaya's "immediate and unconditional" return.
But the Obama administration has issued a series of conflicting statements, and last week the U.S. State Department sent a letter to Republican Senator Richard Lugar that appeared to blame Zelaya himself for the coup. The letter also said that U.S. policy was "not based on supporting any particular politician or individual," thus further distancing Washington from Zelaya.
These statements were widely publicized in the Honduran media and helped to bolster the dictatorship.
Perhaps more ominously, the Obama administration has not said one word about the atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the coup government. Political activists have been murdered, independent TV and radio stations have been shut down, journalists have been detained and intimidated, and hundreds of people arrested. Human rights groups in the U.S. and internationally have denounced this political repression. But Washington has been silent. On the contrary, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Zelaya -- who is not linked to any violence whatsoever -- for attempting to return peacefully to his own country.
On Tuesday, 16 Democratic Members of Congress, including Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to "publicly denounce the use of violence and repression of peaceful protestors, the murder of peaceful political organizers and all forms of censorship and intimidation directed at media outlets." Can he ignore this public appeal from his own party?
The Members of Congress also asked President Obama to " freeze the bank accounts and assets of individuals involved in the coup, and deny them entry into the United States."
These and other measures that are easy to implement could force the dictatorship to allow the President Zelay's return. But the Obama administration has shown no interest in using them.
This problem is not going to go away. On Tuesday the governments of South America issued a joint statement that they will not recognize any president in Honduras that is elected under the dictatorship. This is important because there is a presidential election scheduled for November, and the coup government hopes to stall until then.
But South America had made it clear that this is not an option.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is very close to the Honduran dictatorship's chief strategists such as Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliff, who are powerful Washington lobbyists. Davis was a former counsel to President Bill Clinton and also helped Hillary's own presidential campaign. Most likely Clinton hopes to return Zelaya as close to the election as possible.
This would guarantee an unfair election that her friends in the dictatorship would easily win. The Presidential election campaign has already started, and the longer it continues under conditions of political repression and censorship, the less likely it is that anyone outside of Washington will consider it legitimate. And an illegitimate government in Honduras would become a festering sore, with boycotts and economic sanctions of the type that targeted the South African apartheid regime in the 1970s and 80s.
The Obama administration can still change course and support democracy in Honduras. But time is rapidly running out.
This op-ed was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on August 12, 2009 and published by the Sacramento Bee and other newspapers.