The crisis in Honduras just got more complicated, because Washington may have blocked the most likely road to reconciliation in that Central American nation. The U.S. State Department announced earlier this month that a broad range of assistance for Honduras would be terminated and that additional sanctions would be imposed on members and supporters of the government.
This will add pressure for the return of the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya. He unwisely was bundled out of the country on June 28 by the Honduran military, acting under the instructions of the supreme court and legislature, for his efforts to seek an unconstitutional second term.
Since then, negotiations backed by the United States and led by Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, have sought resolution between the de facto and the deposed governments. Those have stalled, and now that Congress is back in session after its summer break, Washington's patience for Mr. Zelaya's return is thinning.
That's all well and good, but the State Department went further, declaring that the Honduran national elections long-scheduled for Nov. 29 could not be supported "at this moment." Such a position poses risks for the US. It also has broad implications for regional democracy.
Washington has essentially declared that the elections will be illegitimate, if, for example, the de facto government refuses to budge. A democratic, transparent, and constitutionally consistent election was the one escape valve from the Honduran imbroglio for all parties. Without it, the crisis may continue beyond its natural election season conclusion.
Because the election was scheduled long before the crisis, and the candidates were already selected through a democratic primary process, and neither the current president nor the deposed Zelaya are eligible to run, the election would have allowed the Hondurans themselves to press the reset button and move ahead. Indeed the front-runners for the election were all in Costa Rica earlier this week, calling for a negotiated solution that would allow the election to go forward.
Instead, Washington has now narrowed U.S. options. Targeting specific leaders determined to hold on to power with sanctions has not gone well for the U.S. in the past. Think about sanctions targeting Cuba, Haiti, South Africa, North Korea, or Iran, to mention just a few.
After the Sept. 3 announcement, Honduras's interim interior minister sent a letter to the U.S. secretary of State dismissing the sanctions and vowing not to allow Zelaya to return. We can squeeze a lot, and hurt the people of the country by reducing aid, seeking sanctions, and targeting individuals, but a win in our favor is not guaranteed.
The United States may have backed itself into a corner.
What does that mean for the US?
If nothing else, the U.S. should think about the broader implications of undermining previously scheduled elections, as well as the independent electoral institutions that run them.
Also, as the situation in Honduras unfolds, it raises some questions for Washington to consider: Does the legitimacy of a democratic election, no matter whether it is free, transparent, and fair, now hinge on the democratic legitimacy of the government under which it occurs?
If that were previously the case, we would not have been able to resolve the crisis in Nicaragua with the elections of 1990, overseen by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega, or the 1989 elections in Chile, which ended the dictatorial Pinochet regime. Looking forward, what would such a policy imply for democratic transition in Cuba? These are tricky questions, and the answers are, like diplomacy, sometimes messy.
So, where can we go from here? If the current government does quit, despite its increasingly strident assertions, and Zelaya is allowed to return prior to the November elections, the gamble will have paid off. But if Zelaya is not restored prior to the elections, we only have a few options left.
We can try to have the elections postponed until Zelaya does return – which would have serious implications for the reputation and long-term viability of Honduras's democratic institutions, while extending the crisis indefinitely.
Another option would be to watch the elections go forward, having already undercut the new president politically necessitating another election down the road to bestow "democratic legitimacy" on the new leader. This could also extend the crisis.
On the other hand, we can force Zelaya's return before the elections, courtesy of the U.S. armed forces.
Or we can quietly back away from our previous announcement about the elections and say nothing further about them, simply accepting the result – assuming they are free, transparent, and fair.
Unfortunately, all of these options entail costs to the U.S. and none guarantee ultimate resolution. With the announcement designed to put pressure on the Honduran regime, we've also pressured ourselves.