Obama on Wrong Side of Honduras Dispute, GOP Lawmaker Warns

By Patrick Goodenough | May 24, 2011 | 4:42 AM EDT

Ousted former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, center, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, right, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, are photographed after the signing of the agreement in Cartagena, Colombia on Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

(CNSNews.com) – An agreement signed in Colombia this week allowing the ousted former Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, to return home and resume political activity without fear of prosecution marks “a great day” for the Honduran people, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But in the view of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the accord sets the stage for Zelaya and his leftist ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to further damage democracy in the small Central American country.

“Hugo Chavez’s handprints are all over this deal,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “He can’t wait to have Zelaya back in Honduras so he can begin pulling the strings again and undermine that nation’s democracy.”

Clinton, by contrast, said on Monday that the U.S. “commends” the Chavez regime for its role in securing the agreement.

Zelaya was removed from office in June 2009 by the military – acting on the orders of the Supreme Court – and flown to neighboring Costa Rica.

In a move that would have mirrored similar steps taken by Chavez and other Latin American leftists, Zelaya was planning a referendum to convene a constituent assembly, to amend the constitutional one-term limit on presidential power.

As the constitution prohibits such a move and disqualifies from public office anyone who attempts it, the Supreme Court ordered his removal.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen visits Honduras’ then-interim President Roberto Micheletti on Monday, Oct. 5, 2009, at a time when the Obama administration was isolating his government. (AP Photo)

Congressional leader Roberto Micheletti, next in the constitutional line of succession, was duly sworn in as interim president, to serve until scheduled presidential elections took place five months later. Porfirio Lobo won that election, and took office in early 2010.

Three months after he was ousted, Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras and sought refuge at the Brazilian Embassy. Lobo later arranged for him to get safe passage out of the country, and he has been living in exile in the Dominican Republic since then.

On Sunday, Zelaya and Lobo signed an accord in the Colombian city of Cartagena that will allow him to return home.

But it also paves the way for a return to politics for Zelaya who, according to Chavez, has not dropped his plans to push for a constituent assembly.

The agreement also is meant to remove the last hurdle to Honduras’ re-entry into the Organization of American States (OAS), a body from which it was ejected over the Zelaya affair.

The Obama administration supported Honduras’ expulsion from the OAS, agreeing with Zelaya’s – and Chavez’ – contention that his ousting amounted to a “coup.”

That stance was a controversial one: Honduras’ constitution limits the presidency to a single, four-year term and outlaws not just extending the limits, but even proposing that they be changed.

Article 239 reads, “Anyone who violates this provision or who proposes its reform, as well as those who support that violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease to hold their respective positions, and will be disqualified from any public post for 10 years.”

An Aug. 2009 Law Library of Congress report concluded that Zelaya’s ousting – although not his expatriation – was constitutional.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Manuel Zelaya in Washington on September 3, 2009. (State Dept. Photo by Michael Gross)

Nonetheless, the Obama administration came down on Chavez’ side of the argument, supporting the OAS expulsion, freezing non-humanitarian aid and revoking Honduran officials’ visas.

Once Lobo took office, the U.S. reversed course, recognizing his government and calling for Honduras’ reinstatement to the OAS.

But Chavez and his partners in the left-wing Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have blocked the move until now, in part because Zelaya still faced the likelihood of criminal prosecution if he returned home.

In recent weeks, Honduras’ courts have dropped corruption charges as well as pending arrest warrants for Zelaya.

‘Bullied by Zelaya and ALBA cohorts’

The accord signed in Cartagena allows for Zelaya’s safe return, and for him and his supporters – a group known as the National Front for the Popular Resistance – to be free to participate in politics and contest elections. It also provides for an investigation into possible human rights violations arising from the “coup.”

OAS secretary-general Jose Miguel Insulza said Monday the accord “opens the way for Honduras’ return” and said a special meeting would be held soon to that end. The Honduran daily El Heraldo said that could occur as soon as Thursday.

“Thanks to the help of the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, this agreement paves the way for the reintegration of Honduras to the Organization of American States (OAS) and gives Honduras the opportunity to pursue national reconciliation and end its isolation from the international community,” Clinton said in a statement.

“We now look forward to prompt action by member countries of the OAS to allow Honduras to resume its participation,” she added. “Today is a great day for the people of Honduras and for all Hondurans around the world.”

In her statement, Ros-Lehtinen reiterated the view held by a number of congressional Republicans that the Obama administration had chosen the wrong side in the dispute.

“It is regrettable and incomprehensible that Honduras continues to be bullied into indulging the incessant demands of Manuel Zelaya and his ALBA cohorts,” she said, expressing concern about Chavez’ role and his future plans for Honduras.

“Now that everything is in place for Zelaya’s return, there are no more false reasons for the Obama administration to continue its pressure tactics against those in Honduras who opposed Zelaya’s attacks on their country’s constitution and rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“Honduras should never have been suspended from the OAS, and its reinstatement is long overdue.”

Zelaya still wants to amend constitution, Chavez says

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Nicaraguan counterpart, Daniel Ortega, seen here at a 2008 summit in Brazil, are among leftist Latin American leaders who have maneuvered to extend their terms in office. (AP Photo)

Chavez issued a statement saying that “the agreement to restore the sister republic of Honduras to the democratic path is an example of the value of the resistance of the people.”

He said he would be vigilant in ensuring “that the agreement is accomplished because we know there are forces, internal and external, interested to see that it is not.”

Chavez also said Zelaya had told him he would “continue fighting to achieve a constituent assembly in Honduras.”

The driving force behind anti-U.S. “21st century socialism,” Chavez in February 2009 won a referendum allowing him to change the Venezuelan constitution to end presidential term limits in his country. The move paved the way for him to run for election again in 2012. He has been president since early 1999.

Also in 2009, President Evo Morales of Bolivia won a referendum, approving changes to the constitution including an extension of the presidential term, previously limited to one only. In power since January 2006, and re-elected in December 2009, Morales argues that he could run for a third term in 2013 – since his first election took place under the old constitution – which means he could be in office until 2017.

Fellow ALBA leftist Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in office since 2007, could also remain in power until 2017, after changing the constitution to allow two more four-year terms.

And in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega is running for a fourth term in November, even though the constitution bars him from doing so. The Sandinista leader was president from 1985–1990 and then won another term in late 2006.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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