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The Careful U.S. Diplomacy on Honduras

Interviewee: Kevin Casas-Zamora, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin America Initiative, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 9, 2009

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the army in late June 2009 after a months-long power struggle over his plans to seek a referendum to lift presidential term limits. Brookings Fellow Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president under Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, says that by putting its diplomatic weight behind a mediation effort by Arias to settle the Honduran crisis, the Obama administration has demonstrated sensitivity to Latin sensibilities. "They're trying to give the message that the inclusion of regional actors is very important and the United States won't go back to the days when it single-handedly intervened with a heavy hand," he says. The willingness of Zelaya to go along with the mediation effort shows that "he's trying to put some distance" between himself and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Honduras' ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, on Tuesday, they announced that President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica will act as a mediator to settle this latest Latin American crisis. Roberto Micheletti, who was appointed president by Honduran lawmakers after Zelaya was forced out of the country ten days ago, will also participate in the mediation talks in Costa Rica. Does this mean that we're on a road to settling this problem?

I certainly hope so. At the very least, the fact that the mediator has been named means there's recognition by all the parties involved that the only way out of this mess is by setting in motion some kind of political dialogue. That in itself is very significant. But it's not just any kind of political dialogue. It's also a dialogue that Secretary Clinton and the U.S. administration have put their weight behind. The fact that they chose President Arias to be the mediator is certainly good news. He's a man that's very well respected across the region. By pure luck and coincidence, he happens to be holding the rotating presidency of the Central American Integration System, which is an integration arrangement between a set of institutions that exist to bind Central American countries. Since he holds the presidency of that, it's only appropriate that he steps into this mediating role. There's really no better person for the task at hand.

You were second vice president for a year under Arias in his current term in office. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling down Central America in the 1980s during his first time as president. How did he do that?

It was a very peculiar circumstance back in the 1980s. He's not only a very smart man, but he's also a very persistent man. I guess at this point, as you mentioned, his prestige in Central America is unsurpassed. If there's anyone out there who can broker the Honduras crisis, it's Arias.

I thought it was significant not only that President Zelaya agreed to the mediation, but that Roberto Micheletti agreed to go to Costa Rica to participate. Do you think this is due to the fact that the United States, behind the scenes, has been bringing great pressure to bear on the two sides?

I'm pretty sure that's the case. This is very significant on a number of accounts. As you mentioned, the fact that Micheletti went along with the proposal is certainly a good sign, considering Arias came out very strongly against the coup when it happened. And the fact that Zelaya went along also is, in my opinion, very telling.

"They're trying to give the message that the inclusion of regional actors is very important and the United States won't go back to the days when it single-handedly intervened with a heavy hand."

Let me give you a bit of background: My impression is that proposing a mediating role for Arias is not to the liking of either [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez or to [Nicaraguan President] Daniel Ortega. Daniel Ortega, I'm pretty sure, is very perturbed by the fact that Arias will be the mediator. That goes back to the things that happened back in the 1980s, the rivalry between those two that dates from many years ago. So he is irked by the central role that Arias now has in solving the crisis. But the fact that Zelaya went along with this proposal immediately and without hesitation means that he's trying to put some distance between himself and people like Chavez and Ortega. I'm sure if Zelaya had asked Chavez and Ortega, they would have objected strenuously to Arias's mediating role. A good part of the Honduran elite and those supporting Micheletti live in absolute fear of Hugo Chavez, so for Zelaya to stand any chance of going back to being president, he has to put some distance between himself and Hugo Chavez.

It would seem the ideal compromise would be to let Zelaya go back to being president with a firm vow at this point that he would not stand for reelection in November.

Bear in mind that this was never the case. He was never trying to run for president again in November. He was trying to amend the constitution so that he could come back after sitting out for a term. This is a very complicated story, because at the same time, the fact that he was calling for a referendum was interpreted by a number of people as trying to engineer his own immediate reelection. That's not necessarily the case. Whatever he was trying to do, you have to look at it through the lens of the constitutional changes that all these guys--[Bolivian President Evo] Morales, [Ecuadoran President Rafael] Correa and Chavez--have been pursuing. Chavez, Correa, and Morales have all amended the constitution to allow immediate reelection, in some cases without any kind of term limit. When this referendum first popped up, a lot of people feared in Honduras that Zelaya was trying to do the same. That's not necessarily true.

"For Zelaya to stand any chance of going back to being president, he has to put some distance between himself and Hugo Chavez."

But in any case, the makings of a political deal have been there all along. My sense of what the international community is demanding, and what is correct, is first of all that Zelaya should return to the presidency, though not necessarily to power. The presidency and power are two different things. Number two, he has to end his plans to amend the constitution, which won't be much of a problem. Number three, he has to put some distance between himself and Chavez. That's essential. Number four, there has to be some kind of power-sharing agreement, whereby Zelaya remains at the helm of the government but some other people chip-in in the main decisions that are to be made between now and the next election in November. Number five, there has to be some kind of amnesty, for lack of a better word, where everybody turns a blind eye on the pervasive illegal behavior of all the parties involved, because all of them have acted with illegal behavior and have acted with total disregard for the rule of law. Sadly for Honduras, they will have to turn a blind eye to all of that. At this point, no party is in a position to demand accountability from anybody. There's no such thing as high moral ground in Honduras at this point.

Talk a little bit about the Obama administration's handling of this. Clearly, the administration came into office determined to improve its standing in Latin America, which was in terrible shape during the Bush administration. This is the first real test for the administration. How do you think its actions are being perceived in Latin America?

Their handling of the situation has been very good. Their first reaction was correct: They came out very strongly in favor of democracy and the rule of law. That's a very sensitive issue for Latin America given the history of U.S. meddling in Latin American politics and of the United States not always being on the side of democracy. The fact that the U.S. administration came out very strongly on the side of democracy is an important message, and was very well received in Latin America.

Then the United States stepped back and handed over the issue to the Organization of American States [OAS], which failed pretty miserably in handling the situation. There has to be some soul-searching at the OAS on the way they handled this whole crisis, and by this crisis I mean before this whole thing exploded ten days ago. They could have done a lot to prevent all of this. The whole issue of Zelaya trying to force his return to Honduras last weekend and the soldiers lined on the tarmac was a terrible farce.

After that happened, there was a sense that the only actor who could really broker a deal was the U.S. administration, given the influence of the United States on whatever happens in Honduras. That's when Secretary Clinton stepped in and agreed to meet with Zelaya. That was the right thing to do by all means. It was crucial that at that level, the United States was seen as interested in finding a solution. That's what happened [Tuesday]. That's why I say that the fact Clinton stepped in and put her weight behind a negotiated solution is hugely significant. At the same time, it's a good thing that even though they showed some leadership and interest, they are correctly allowing the regional actors to play the main roles in this story. They're trying to give the message that the inclusion of regional actors is very important and the United States won't go back to the days when it single-handedly intervened with a heavy hand.

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