News this morning is that after simmering for four months, the political crisis that has paralyzed Honduras is drawing to a close. In an agreement (English translation) between deposed President Mel Zelaya and de facto leader Roberto Micheletti’s representatives, Zelaya’s fate will be thrown to Congress. With the legislative body’s approval, Zelaya would be lame duck president in a government of national unity. Elections would go forward as planned at the end of November, with neither of the dueling presidents as candidate. To ensure the army doesn’t get involved in politics for the remainder of the campaign, control of the Armed Forces will be transferred to the national elections supervisor, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Now comes the follow through — making sure Zelaya serves out his term and steps down in favor of whomever the Honduran people elect in a month in a free and fair election, one in which neither side is pushing their thumb down on the scales. Then the new government should turn to the real matter at hand. Not pushing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s agenda, not trying to suck up to the U.S., but bettering the lot of the people in the hemisphere’s fourth poorest country.
While both sides are claiming to be vindicated by the agreement, the real winners are obviously the Honduran people. The embargo of aid and disruption of relations with its neighbors had put the already poor country at a disadvantage, and the stubbornness of both sides was evidence that they were looking out for their own interests and not those of the Honduran people.
Another winner was the measured, responsible foreign policy of the Obama administration. Throughout the crisis, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and their team have been seen as the steady hands at the tiller. They looked to resolve the situation and respect the rule of law. The Obama team used political and economic pressure to bring both sides to the negotiating table; threat of continued ostracism kept them talking.
By contrast, Zelaya’s ostensible patron, Hugo Chávez, was proven to be ineffectual. Chávez threatened to invade, thinking that two wrongs would make a right in supporting Zelaya. But Chávez was all helpless bluster, eventually calling on Obama to solve the problem.
U.S. conservatives also did not do themselves any favors, with South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and the editorial team at the Wall Street Journal standing out in particular. DeMint, who should have learned that South Carolina Republicans shouldn’t get involved in Latin American escapades, flew down to Tegucigalpa earlier this month and endorsed the coup government as “working hard to follow the rule of law” when it overthrew the democratically elected leader of Honduras at gunpoint.
But while it’s easy (and fun) to point out how conservatives were on the wrong side of the coup, there are deeper issues at stake. Writing last week in the Los Angeles Times, respected Latin America academic Abraham Lowenthal said:
What brings Honduras, and Central America more generally, back again and again to center stage in Washington debates on Latin America is not the strategic, security or economic importance of the region to the United States. On the contrary, it is precisely the minimal tangible significance of Central America to the United States in economic, political and military terms that allows U.S. policymakers of conflicting tendencies to indulge in grandstanding in framing policies toward that nearby and vulnerable region.
He’s right. The US needs to focus on Central America at a policy level. Crime is up significantly in the region, and — more alarmingly — is getting organized. Maras — originally street gangs started by El Savadorans both there and in the U.S. — have been evolving into regional cartels transporting drugs and flaunting the rule of law. Governments in Central America aren’t strong enough to face this threat, and there are troubling signs they are being co-opted both at the local and national level. The potential for narco-states exists in the region.
Mark Ribbing called for a special envoy to Mexico and the Caribbean. What we really need is a special envoy to Mexico and Central America to address the interrelated issues the isthmus faces: gangs, drugs, and illegal immigration. Additionally, that envoy needs resources to help fight these problems and not just be another talking head. While the previous administration pushed the Mérida Initiative as a “Plan Colombia” for our southern neighbor, we need a “Plan Mesoamerica” to help develop stronger institutions in the region that can stand up to illegal activity, whether it comes in fatigues, a tailored suit, or gang tattoos.