Few things have peeved Latin America more than Washington’s hypocrisy regarding coups. Overthrowing our friends at gunpoint is bad, the traditional U.S. line seemed to go, but toppling our foes even the democratically elected ones is O.K. So it surprised Latin Americans when U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the June 28 military ouster of leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a critic of the U.S., and called for his return to office. “We respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders,” Obama said, “whether they are leaders we agree with or not.”
Obama got off to a good start in Latin America, engaging leaders and promising a new attitude from Washington. The problem with the shift on coups is that Latin America now expects action to back it up. Honduras is Obama’s first hemispheric crisis. There are obviously higher White House priorities right now, and Obama insists he’s diligently working for a negotiated solution. But diplomats from Brasília to Mexico City say they fear he’s only half-heartedly pressuring Honduras’ new government to let Zelaya back in to finish his term, a perception that could squander the trust he’s built. That might create problems down the road for America and the Americas alike.
Obama is stuck in the New World’s new paradox. Latin America today is less dependent on Washington, and less tolerant of its interventionism, than it has been for decades, thanks to the counterweight of rising star Brazil and the anti-U.S. gospel of Venezuela’s oil-rich leftist President, Hugo Chávez. Yet for all that newfound self-reliance, Latin America still looks to the U.S.’s superpower leadership to put the squeeze on rogues like the Honduran coupsters. No other force in the western hemisphere, not Brazil, and certainly not the Organization of American States, wields the requisite economic and diplomatic clout to resolve the standoff.
As a result, any perceived indifference to Honduras on Obama’s part could sour his start and make it harder to engage the region on matters Washington cares about, like drugs and trade. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who tacitly backed a failed coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, promised a new relationship with Latin America, but saw his free-trade plan for the hemisphere die and drug production soar. Now even moderate Latin leaders are decrying Washington’s quiet efforts to use military bases in Colombia for U.S. antidrug operations; their pique will increase if they decide Honduras’ military chiefs are getting a pass from Obama.
The broader risk is the signal a successful coup would send to other restless armies, from Guatemala to Bolivia. Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias, who is mediating talks between Zelaya and the coup leaders, has noted that Latin American military spending is almost double what it was five years ago, and that the region “continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts.” For all the progress Latin Americans have made in electing their Presidents, they often fall back on old habits when removing them whether it’s oligarchies bidding soldiers do the job in Central America or populists galvanizing street mobs in the Andes. Allowing the Honduran putsch to prevail won’t exactly strengthen a caudillo-prone continent’s democracies.
So what should Obama be doing The U.S. and Europe have each suspended almost $100 million in aid to Honduras, while the U.S. has canceled diplomatic visas for a few officials tied to the coup. But Honduras’ provisional President, Roberto Micheletti, still insists that Zelaya’s return is “impossible.” To raise the heat, the U.S. needs to impose tougher economic sanctions , or enforce visa bans for a broader swath of the élite behind the coup.
Obama also needs to stand up to U.S. conservatives who are hijacking the Honduras issue by claiming the coup was nothing of the sort. Republicans have protested Obama’s position by blocking his appointments to top diplomatic posts. Because Zelaya had broken the law by trying to end Honduras’ presidential term limit, they argue, the Honduran military did the right thing by saving the country from the ousted leader and the growing influence of his ally, Chávez. “By calling this a coup,” said Florida Representative Connie Mack, “the Obama Administration now stands with the likes of Chávez.”
That’s nonsense. Chávez led a failed coup in 1992 against then Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a U.S ally. Pérez too was a lawbreaker he was later convicted for embezzlement. But had Chávez’s coup succeeded, it would have been universally condemned, and rightly so. Honduras’ coup leaders have more in common with Chávez than they care to admit. Obama says he doesn’t stand with them. Now he has to work harder to ensure their coup doesn’t stand at all.
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