By Kevin Bogardus, TheHill.com, July 14, 2009
A group of Hondurans who want their ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, reinstated are pressing the U.S. government to suspend trade and foreign aid to the Central American country.
The Hondurans, who oppose the nation’s interim government, were in Washington this week to make the case to the U.S. government that Zelaya’s June 28 ouster was an illegal military coup. They believe business interests inside and outside of Honduras conspired to remove the president due to his populist policies.
"We are very worried because the coup takes back to the past politically, economically, and socially," said Marvin Ponce, a member of the Honduran National Congress. “We are here not just to defend Zelaya but to defend democracy.”
Ponce and other Hondurans spoke with reporters through a translator Tuesday morning at a briefing organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a think tank that tracks U.S. policy toward Latin America.
The lobbying trip by the Hondurans comes as partisan fault lines take shape on Capitol Hill. Democrats have embraced the idea that this was a military coup, while Republicans say Zelaya’s removal was justified after he tried to grab more power than he is constitutionally allowed.
A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee has already taken up the issue at a hearing, and last week a trio of liberal House Democrats — Reps. Bill Delahunt (Mass.), James McGovern (Mass.) and José Serrano (N.Y.) — introduced a resolution deeming the action a coup and calling for the reinstatement of Zelaya.
“To accept the overthrow of a democratically elected government is to wipe away the progress that has been made — progress that has been supported by both Democratic and Republican presidents and congresses,” the lawmakers wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter seeking support for their resolution.
The resolution had 16 co-sponsors as of press time Tuesday — all of them Democrats, including a few committee chairmen: Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) of the Judiciary Committee and Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Their resolution followed one introduced last Thursday by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who condemned Zelaya for his desire to change presidential term limits and said that led to his exile. Eleven co-sponsors have signed on, all Republican.
Republicans have rejected calling Zelaya’s removal a coup. Other branches of the government called for the president’s ouster, including its supreme court and its legislature, they note.
A group of Honduran business leaders also say Zelaya’s removal was justified and have hired Washington lobbyists to help make their case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
This week, the Hondurans opposing the takeover are scheduled to meet with McGovern but also with Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. They also plan to hold an open briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the situation in Honduras and have meetings planned with officials from the State Department and World Bank.
Engel, who chaired last week's hearing, is a key voice in the debate over Honduras; his subcommittee has jurisdiction over the region. Engel more forcibly criticized Zelaya last week at the hearing after calling for his reinstatement one day after his June 28 ouster.
The Hondurans who are against Zelaya’s exile plan intend to push lawmakers and administration officials to end trade and foreign aid to Honduras until the political crisis is resolved.
“The power to return the president is here in Washington if they suspend trade,” Ponce said.
The group is also supporting the mediation process arranged by the State Department and under the guidance of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, but under certain conditions.
“All dialogue is positive,” said Juan Almendares, a Honduran environmentalist. “ But we believe the dialogue should be in Honduras … There has to be a recognition that there has been a military coup.”
The advocates for Zelaya said those who oppose the interim government are being censored in the press, arrested and even killed by the authorities. “If this government was a democratic government, they wouldn’t have to use this force,” Almendares said.
The Hondurans in Washington this week have found support among some American academics. In a July 9 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, 78 Latin American scholars said, “Anything less than the urgent restoration of President Manuel Zelaya to office would be an usurpation of the will of the Honduran people.”
But those opposed to Zelaya's ouster will already find a lobbying campaign against the former president here in Washington. Last week, the Honduran branch of CEAL, essentially Latin America’s chamber of commerce, hired Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to lobby on its behalf, saying it was right to oust Zelaya.
Those lobbyists argue that Zelaya ignored a ruling from Honduras’s supreme court and a vote against him in the legislature. They say Zelaya was acting outside of the country’s constitution by trying to change presidential term limits under a voter referendum, clearing the path for him to become a dictator.
But Almendares, Ponce and others believe the legislature and the supreme court, corrupted by business interests inside and outside the country, were acting unconstitutionally by limiting presidential powers. The coup was complete when the military ignored orders from Zelaya in late June.
“There is no doubt that this is a military coup that happened,” Almendares said. “How can a military coup be legal?”