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Clock Ticks as U.S. Mulls Solution to Honduran Stalemate

September 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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With less than three months until presidential elections in Honduras, the White House is running out of time to resolve a coup that resulted in the ouster of the nation's now deposed president, Manuel Zelaya. The dispute has also strained U.S.-Honduran ties.
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MARGARET WARNER: It’s been more than two months since the Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, was whisked from his bed by soldiers in late June and flown into exile. The Honduran congress and supreme court helped generate the coup. They said Zelaya had been trying to unconstitutionally extend his presidential term.

They installed congressional leader Roberto Micheletti as interim president of a new de facto government until elections in November. Zelaya immediately began pressing to return. And his ouster was denounced by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and, perhaps most critically, President Obama.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Secretary of State Clinton met with Zelaya in Washington. At the same time, the State Department said it was terminating all non-humanitarian aid to Honduras until a return to democratic constitutional governance.

The aid, which had already been temporarily suspended, amounts to roughly $30 million.

Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley made the announcement.

P.J. CROWLEY, assistant secretary of state for public affairs: Today’s action sends a clear message to the de facto regime that the status quo is unacceptable and that their strategy to try to run out the clock on President Zelaya’s term of office, you know, is unacceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: But the move fell short of what Zelaya wanted. That was for the U.S. to call his ouster a military coup. That would trigger far more sweeping cuts in aid. Crowley was asked why the secretary didn’t go further.

P.J. CROWLEY: We’re trying to do two things. You know, one is to send a clear message and put as much pressure as we can on the de facto regime. But we still value our relationship with Honduras and in particular the Honduran people.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s move comes after months of stalled mediation efforts by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. So far, Micheletti’s government has refused any deal that allows Zelaya back into office for the remaining three months of his term.

In Honduras, Zelaya’s loyalists continue taking to the streets, demanding his return. Yesterday, in Washington, Zelaya called on the United States to take more action to force that.

MANUEL ZELAYA, president, Honduras (through translator): I think that the first country in the world cannot put its prestige on the line and submit to a small group of people that are pro-coup and do not accept the opinion of the international community. This is like a snatching of democracy during the Obama administration.

Congress weighs in

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(R) Florida
I totally disagree with the way that the Obama administration has been mishandling this situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Congress has also weighed in. Many Democrats are pressing the administration to take harsher steps against the de facto government. But some Senate Republicans are blocking key State Department appointments to express displeasure with the administration's support for Zelaya, whom they call an ally of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

The clock to resolve the standoff is ticking. Campaigning for the November 29 election with two totally different candidates has already begun.

And for more of that congressional debate on this issue, we go to two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is the ranking Republican, and Congressman Bill Delahunt is the Democrat from Massachusetts.

Welcome to you both.

So, Congressman Delahunt, what do you think of what Secretary Clinton did today?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT, D-Mass.: I think it was the right move at this particular point in time.

One aspect that your setup didn't review was that there now is an express statement by the Department of State that, until this issue is resolved in accordance with the Arias effort, that the election that will be held on -- in November -- I think that's the date -- will not be recognized by the United States.

In other words, we will join our allies in Latin America, like Brazil, like Chile, and like Mexico, in not accepting the results of that forthcoming election.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, what about the actual move today in terms of the aid, in terms of the -- the $30 million?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, R-Fla.: Well, I...

MARGARET WARNER: Was that too far or not far enough?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I totally disagree with the way that the Obama administration has been mishandling this situation.

And I find it interesting that one of the statements that the State Department put out, it says that they recognize the complicated set of actions which led to the June 28 coup.

What complicated set of actions? Manuel Zelaya violated the -- the Honduran constitution, violated the law that was passed by the Honduran congress, violated the decision, unanimous, 15-0, by the Honduran supreme court, went against every aspect of the rule of law. What's so complicated about that?

What do you do with a president who wants to maintain himself into power at all costs, no matter if the legislative branch goes against him, if the judicial branch goes against him? And, so, the Honduran government took this action.

And the United States wants to divorce that complicated set of actions as if they didn't happen. Zelaya was violating the law, violating the constitution. And I think that it's the wrong-headed approach for the United States to punish the Honduran people and to say that they're not going to recognize a legitimate election that's going to take place in late November.

This is a man who won't take no for an answer, and, yet, we're supposed to say, let's restore him to power, nonetheless.

U.S. support for Manuel Zelaya

Rep. Bill Delahunt
(D) Massachusetts
I think we have to understand the context of Honduran politics. It's been a country that has been ruled by an economic elite.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Congressman Delahunt, explain why you think the United States should be supporting Zelaya, who did act certainly extra-legally, or so the supreme court and the congress and Honduras both said?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, Margaret, I find it somewhat amusing that many of my colleagues on the Republican side must have gone to law school in -- in Honduras, because it would appear that they're constitutional scholars.

But let me be very clear. The -- the request or the initiative by Zelaya was not to extend his term. The question that was going to be on the ballot was a nonbinding referendum for the people of Honduras to decide simply this question: Should there be a constituent assembly?

That was it, pure and simple. I think we have to understand the context of Honduran politics. It's been a country that has been ruled by an economic elite. And, with all due respect to the elections that have been held down there, that economic elite exercises disproportionate influence in that democracy.

In the past -- and I dare say at times now -- it would be fair to describe Honduras as a banana republic.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Oh, my gosh.

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: We can't go backward.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: What an insult. What an insult. That is...

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: We -- well, you can...

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Shame on you, Bill.

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Ileana, let me -- please, don't say that.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: A banana republic, that's just great. What an insult to the Honduran people.

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, you don't think that -- well, let me -- let me ask you this, OK? You would not, in the past, describe Honduras and other Central American and Latin American countries as banana republics?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: No, absolutely not. And I think that's an insult to the people of Honduras.

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Then I dare say that you don't -- you're not that familiar with Latin America.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: It's an insult to everyone in Latin America to...

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me interrupt.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: ... to -- to label any country as a banana republic.

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well...

Passion on Capitol Hill

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(R) Florida
In Honduras, where they are respecting the constitution, we break away aid. And, yet, in Syria, where you have a dictator, we want to say, we want to reestablish diplomatic relations. We want to have an ambassador over there.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both a question. And I want to begin with the congresswoman.

This is a small, impoverished Latin American country, yet it -- this issue has generated quite surprising passion on Capitol Hill. Why? Why is Congress so concerned about this tiny country, Congresswoman?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that this is about the rule of law.

I don't think that this is about economic distribution of wealth, whether it's a large country or a small country, whether it's a poor country or a rich country. This is a country that -- that said very clearly, the president has violated the constitution. You don't have to be a constitutional scholar or a graduate of a Honduran law school to know that the article of the constitution is quite clear.

You can call it a poll. You can call it a survey. You can call it a referendum. You can call it anything you want. But it was a violation of the Honduran constitution. And I'm not the one that says that. The supreme court, by a 15-0 unanimous decision, said this president is violating the law.

Now, what are the people of Honduras supposed to do...

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, let me just...

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: ... when you have a president who will not adhere to the constitution?

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just interrupt you. If you could just tell me -- I mean, there are plenty of countries all over the world where dodgy election things happen, and Congress doesn't get all exercised about all of them. Why on this one?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that we should get excited and exercised about all of them.

I believe that it's a shame when you have a wrong-headed approach about Syria, for example, and this approach toward Honduras. In Honduras, where they are respecting the constitution, we break away aid. And, yet, in Syria, where you have a dictator, we want to say, we want to reestablish diplomatic relations. We want to have an ambassador over there.

In Iran, we're thinking about maybe undoing sanctions. It's the wrong-headed approach. We want to protect the -- the rule of law and not have this topsy-turvy, "Alice in Wonderland," up-is-down kind of approach in foreign policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, what is your view about...

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: And I can't agree -- I -- I....

MARGARET WARNER: ... why this is such a hot issue on the Hill?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, I think it's a hot issue because the rule of law is at stake here.

And, as other democracies in Latin America have unanimously recognized, there was a violation. The Organization of American States condemned this coup. The United Nations has condemned this coup. And we don't want to go back to the era of banana republics.

And not to address this issue, and to try to divert attention with some arguments that simply do not hold under scrutiny, I think, does a disservice to the concept of the rule of law.

If it -- if it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, it's a coup. I cannot believe that some would stake out the fact that this president was taken, not to a court to answer to charges, but bundled up in his pajamas, brought to a plane, and ferreted out of the country.

What I find particularly interesting is, the top Honduran military lawyer acknowledged, unequivocally, without reservation, that they broke the law. Let's understand what this is about.

November elections in Honduras

Rep. Bill Delahunt
(D) Massachusetts
[T]here was a report today that there are informal conversations going on between the Zelaya camp and those surrounding Micheletti. Let's hope that they -- they result in some sort of conclusion.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

And let me ask you both for a fearless forecast very briefly. Do you think the step announced today will be enough to push these two parties closer to resolving this?

And, Congresswoman, I will start with you, just very briefly.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, we will have an election in Honduras in late November. It should be legitimate, free, and fair, internationally supervised.

And I hope that the United States -- the United States takes the correct approach in saying that this is a legitimate election, and let's -- let's look toward the future, and not harp on the wrong actions of Zelaya when he was violating the constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Congress...

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We have got legitimate elections. Let's recognize them.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, do you think that's what is in the cards, that they will run out the clock here?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, I hope -- there was a report today that there are informal conversations going on between the Zelaya camp and those surrounding Micheletti. Let's hope that they -- they result in some sort of conclusion.

But, let's remember, you know, President -- former President Arias, a Nobel Prize winner, has an accord that is out there that was accepted by President Zelaya and rejected by Mr. Micheletti. I think that says it all.

We know that he's trying to run out the clock. This was a good move today to ratchet up the pressure and the sanctions to resolve this issue without violence.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we have run out the clock here.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Delahunt and Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, thank you both.