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The Coup in Honduras: Can the Obama Administration’s Promising Start in the Americas be Sustained?

By Abraham F. Lowenthal
Reforma (Mexico), July 1, 2009

The military coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras provides an early test of the Obama administration’s commitment to its new approach in the Americas, committed to multilateralism and cooperation with Latin American partners.

The Obama administration set out very early to improve U.S. relations in the hemisphere by strengthening partnership with Mexico and developing a strategic alliance with Brazil; taking responsibility for the domestic U.S. sources of some regional difficulties; indicating that it would build domestic coalitions to support expanded trade and sustainable immigration reform; pragmatically improving relations on a case by case basis with populist regimes; and moving carefully to build a mutually respectful relationship with Cuba, looking toward future rapprochement without abandoning U.S. concerns about human rights.

Will these positive initial moves endure? Honduras may prove to be a tough test. In the past, one U.S. administration after another has trumpeted a new policy, but more often than not, these new approaches have faded away: resisted by career bureaucrats, special interests, or both, and overwhelmed by regional realities or by other concerns. That is what happened, for example, in 1963 when elected President Ramón Villeda Morales was overthrown in Honduras, testing the resolve of the Kennedy administration to implement its announced policy that it would not recognize governments established by force. Washington suspended diplomatic relations immediately after the coup, but restored them less than two months later, recognized and accommodated itself to the anti-Communist military regime. This sequence contributed to the so-called Mann Doctrine of 1964, dropping the U.S. insistence on democracy.

Those who are skeptical that the Obama approach to Latin America will endure point to some early straws in the wind. Indications from the new administration that it respects the right of Latin American countries to diversify their international relationships appeared to be contradicted when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about the increasing presence of China and Iran in the region. The President’s call for a new beginning with Cuba was followed by U.S. resistance to lifting the OAS expulsion of Cuba. Mr. Obama’s early promise that comprehensive immigration reform would be a first year priority soon gave way to a commitment only to begin consultations on the issue this year. After the new administration acknowledged the need to regulate the export of small weapons from the United States to Mexico, the President suggested that this was politically unrealistic. None of these indications is necessarily definitive—the lifting of the OAS expulsion of Cuba was deftly resolved by diplomatic compromise, for example—but they all raised doubts.

These have been further deepened by the new administration’s approach to trade policy, which has been confusing at best: rejecting protectionism but accepting a “Buy American” provision in the economic stimulus legislation, and expressing its willingness to proceed with the Free Trade Agreements for Colombia and Panama but postponing action. The administration has talked up energy cooperation with Brazil but has preserved the subsidy for U.S. corn-based ethanol producers and a high tariff on imported ethanol. Despite trumpeting enhanced partnership with Mexico, it allowed the experimental program for Mexican truckers to enter the United States to lapse, leaving the United States in non-compliance with an important NAFTA provision.

It is still possible, however, that the Obama administration’s early steps to reform U.S. approaches to Latin America can be sustained. The regional vision of the new senior policy team appears well-aligned with that of the career bureaucracy specializing in Latin American affairs. The administration’s Latin American policy approaches also fit well with both its domestic priorities and its broad international approach. Several interest groups that oppose the administration’s policies—notably the hard-line sector of Florida’s Cuban-American community and the gun lobby—have been weakened by the 2008 elections and the currents of opinion they reflect. Hispanic/Latino voters beyond the Cuban American community have been gaining influence, and generally support the policy changes the Obama administration is proposing. Mr. Obama may thus have room to maneuver on Latin American policy.

An administration that understands Latin America’s ongoing significance for the United States and that has an incipient strategic vision for the Americas should fend off the pressures that could undermine its promising effort to renew inter-American cooperation. The Honduras crisis provides an opportunity to reaffirm the Obama policies in the Western Hemisphere by supporting multilateral and institutional processes, relying on the Organization of American States and its Inter-American Democratic Charter, and encouraging Latin American leadership. This is, as Rahm Emmanuel would say, a crisis to take advantage of.

Abraham F. Lowenthal is professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and president emeritus of the Pacific Council on International Policy.