THE PLANK OCTOBER 30, 2009
Francisco Toro and Juan Nagel write the Venezuelan news blog Caracas Chronicles. A version of this post originally appeared there.
The Honduran tragicomedy that has consumed the hemisphere's diplomats for months is at an end (read the details here). Barring the unforeseeable, which is always an iffy thing to do in Honduras, the coupster is out, the mercurial elected president is back in (pending a face-saving vote by Congress and the Supreme Court), and an election to replace him will be held on November 29, as planned.
In light of all this, who was the winner in the Honduran crisis?
Certainly not the elected leader, Mel Zelaya. He's back in power, but is significantly weakened. He will not be allowed to push for the constitutional reform that precipitated the crisis in the first place. He'll be forced to head a "unity government" (diplomatese for a “grownup supervised government"), and he'll have to find himself another job in January.
Certainly not the guy who unseated him, Roberto Micheletti. By giving up power to Zelaya, he loses a massive amount of face and may have to fight criminal charges down the road. In spite of having stopped the illegal referendum Zelaya was pushing for, his fate is up in the air.
Certainly not Zelaya's key ally in the region, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who can say goodbye (for now) to his main objective: ensuring Zelaya remained in power through indefinite reelection so that he could add Honduras as a virtual vassal. His intervention in the crisis, which went from ridiculing Micheletti to threatening to ignite civil war, was as hyperbolic as it was ineffectual; it left him sounding like a clown. Count on Chávez to ignore reality and call this a heroic, historic, glorious triumph of the Revolution, though.
Certainly not the OAS. In a futile attempt to compete with Chávez's maximalist rhetoric, the regional body let its presumed power get ahead of its actual leverage, effectively sidelining itself from the negotiations that eventually brought the crisis to an end. The crisis cemented the organization's reputation as a Presidents' Club more concerned with protecting executive branch prerogatives than with standing up for democratic governance. It was lost on no one, for instance, that its members' outrage over the ouster of a democratically elected president in Honduras came just a couple of months after most of them had demanded the Castro Brothers' dictatorship be readmitted to its ranks. In the end, the region's heavyweights (a.k.a., Brazil) showed that, without U.S. influence, they have little to no leverage.
No. The real winner in this drama is the top diplomat for the key power who quietly, patiently pushed for this settlement all along. It was Hillary Clinton's State Department that first pressed for an agreement along these lines. It was State that asked Costa Rican president Oscar Arias to mediate a deal like this, and it was State that stepped into the breach when the Arias compromise fell apart: They dispatched Assistant Secretary of State for the West Hemisphere, Thomas Shannon, to Tegucigalpa on multiple occasions to help settle the dispute.
It's therefore fitting that, from far off Islamabad, it fell to Hillary Clinton to announce the deal. Hailing the "historic agreement" between the two sides, she went on to stress that “I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that, having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order, overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue.”
Perhaps most importantly, by helping to reinstate a duly elected anti-American president, the deal will be a significant first step in the long, arduous task of re-establishing the U.S.'s democratic bona fides in the region. The entrenched view for many Latin Americans--and not just those on the chavista left--is that the U.S. favors democracy, but only when the people who get elected hew closely to U.S. interests. Undoing that view is an urgent task for the Obama administration, and Secretary Clinton understands that it can only be achieved if the U.S. shows itself willing to stand on principle, even when--especially when--those principles favor regional adversaries.
Similar deals along the same lines have already broken down at the last minute in the past, even if commitments this time appear to be more solid. If this deal leads Honduras away from crisis and toward a legitimate presidential election, if it leads Zelaya and Micheletti to the dustbin of history, then we can count it as Clinton's first substantial achievement in the region.