There is an obvious compromise available to end the Honduras crisis--or there was, anyway, until Secretary Clinton rejected it on Thursday.
Honduras's ejected president Mel Zelaya saw the Secretary and apparently persuaded her that the outcome of Honduras's next elections must be rejected. On what basis? None was stated, and no logical basis exists. The next elections will be entirely constitutional and held on time; and the term of office of the ousted Zelaya would end naturally and constitutionally when a new president is sworn in, in January. The candidates were selected before the current crisis began, and all the parties--including Zelaya's Liberal Party, one half of Honduras's essentially two party system--are participating. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the election can be monitored by international observers (and we could have demanded more of them than usual) and fairly conducted. Honduras's vote for a new president on November 29 was the obvious way for everyone to dig out of the current mess without hurting the Honduran people and without damaging Honduras's democratic institutions.
But it was rejected yesterday by Clinton and the Obama administration. The State Department's spokesman said that "Based on conditions as they currently exist, we cannot recognize the results of this election." The irrationality of the words is striking: based on conditions today, we can't recognize the results of a free election more than two months from now on November 29, even if everyone thinks it's free and even if Zelaya's party participates, and even if his term would constitutionally be over anyway. Remember, it was Zelaya who wanted to screw around with that election, and hold a referendum on that date allowing him to be re-elected in perpetuity--just as his mentor Chavez has done in Venezuela. That's what gave rise to his defenestration. Now Hondurans want to go back to regular elections, but the United States won't allow them to do so?
The argument made around the Organization of American States (which is supporting Zelaya) is that elections conducted under the "de facto regime" cannot be considered fair. Really? Every country in Latin America that made a transition from military to civilian rule held elections with the military still in charge, yet we don't hear the OAS saying all those elections were phony. Just to take one example, in Chile the dictator Augusto Pinochet was not only president when transition elections were held in 1990, he continued on as head of the armed forces for 8 years after that. Such history is forgotten at the OAS when it is convenient, but facts are stubborn things--even in Latin America.
Honduras was the original "banana republic," and its poverty remains extreme. Close to half the population lives on two dollars a day or less, and the country has not yet recovered from the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The International Fund for Agricultural Development put it this way: "Rural poverty in Honduras is among the most severe in Latin America. Approximately 53 percent of the population is rural, and it is estimated that 75 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, unable to meet basic needs. The country still has high rates of population growth, infant mortality, child malnutrition and illiteracy. These and other social and economic factors reflect its status as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti." Yet on Thursday the United States announced a cut of $30 million in aid and more aid cuts are in the offing. All this to shoehorn back into power a man whom the Supreme Court of Honduras voted, 15-0 (and 9 of the 15 were members of Zelaya's Liberal Party) had violated their constitution.
The Obama administration's weak-kneed support of human rights in places like Egypt and China being obvious, the policy in Honduras appears to reflect not so much enthusiasm for democracy as a "no enemies to the Left" view of Latin America. One could laugh at the foolishness of this policy were it not for the six and half million Hondurans, fighting poverty, fighting Chavez and Zelaya and the effort to turn their political system into another Venezuela--and now, fighting Uncle Sam.
Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs in the Reagan administration.