The leaders of Honduras's military coup recently rebuffed a high-level delegation from the Organization of American States by once again refusing to allow the return of constitutional President Manuel Zelaya. As the international community throws up its hands at the coup's intransigence, the U.S. State Department is sitting on its hands.
Two months after Zelaya was forcibly exiled in an Armed Forces plane to Costa Rica, the de facto regime has outlived predictions amid unanimous international condemnation. Coup leader Roberto Micheletti told OAS Secretary General Jose Insulza, "We are not afraid of sanctions from anyone. We have concluded that this country can move forward without the help of you or other countries."
Days later, Micheletti qualified that statement. He admitted that the one country that has the power to make the illegal regime feel the pain is the United States. Honduras sends 70% of its exports to the U.S. market, remittances from Hondurans in the U.S. make up nearly a fourth of the GDP and U.S. aid and investment is crucial to the national economy.
As the crisis drags on, criticisms mount that continued U.S. government delays in cutting off economic support contribute to the coup's defiance of international law and doplomacy. The U.S. State Department has not issued a formal statement to Congress acknowledging the military coup in Honduras. Under Section 7008 of the U.S. Foreign Operations Bill, such a declaration mandates an immediate suspension of most aid until rule of law is restored.
Although Honduras is a small, impoverished nation that plays a relatively minor role in U.S. geopolitical strategy, the issues at stake make it a test case for a new foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and rule of law. The Obama administration's initial response showed some major shifts from the foreign policy of its predecessor. By condemning the coup against Zelaya, a left-leaning leader in the hemisphere, it placed democratic principles above ideological criteria and showed a commitment to working within multilateral organizations to resolve the crisis.
Since then the U.S. position has begun to unravel. After the mediation efforts supported by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton broke down, the State Department still refused to act decisively. Millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money continue to flow to the coup regime through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, USAID and other aid. Some military aid has been cut off but other aid and training programs continue as if nothing had happened.
This lack of firm action on the part of the U.S. government feeds criticism and contributes to the volatile situation in Honduras. As the State Department ponders supposed legal issues, I heard testimony from women who had been beaten and raped by police and military forces on a recent international delegation for women's human rights. A mission of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the same week documented four assassinations and violations of freedom of expression, freedom of movement, arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force in repressing public demonstrations.
The U.S. government has not responded to documented human rights violations in Honduras.
On Sept. 1, electoral campaigns began in the country. Under the coup regime, Honduras does not comply with even minimal conditions to carry out democratic elections. Many grassroots organizations have vowed to boycott any coup-sponsored elections. Brazil and Mexico issued a joint statement on Aug. 17 agreeing "not to recognize the authorities currently in office as result of a violation of the constitutional internal order or any result of elections not held by the legitimate government." The U.S. has not announced its position.
The U.S. government bears a particular responsibility to avoid a repeat scenario of Central America's dark, dictatorial past--or eruption of all-out war--in Honduras. It's past actions of supporting dictatorships and the Iran-Contra affair based in Honduras create understandable suspicions among Latin Americans, at a time when President Obama promised a new era of "equal partnerships." There can be no "equal partnership" with a coup regime.
The State Department must immediately send the required notice to Congress designating the coup in Honduras and cutting off funds and support. The Obama administration must also freeze assets of coup members, who have been spending down the coffers of the poverty-stricken country to repress defenders of democracy.
The message to Honduras and the world must be crystal clear: the United States does not support military coup d'états in this Hemisphere or anywhere else in the world.