The Obama administration's condemnation of the coup in Honduras has been lukewarm compared to the rest of the world
The military coup that overthrew Honduras's elected president, Manuel Zelaya, brought unanimous international condemnation. But some country's responses have been more reluctant than others, and Washington's ambivalence has begun to raise suspicions about what the US government is really trying to accomplish in this situation.
The first statement from the White House in response to the coup was weak and non-committal. It did not denounce the coup but rather called upon "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter".
This contrasted with statements from other presidents in the hemisphere, such as Lula da Silva of Brazil and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, who denounced the coup and called for the re-instatement of Zelaya. The EU issued a similar, less ambiguous and more immediate response.
Later in the day, as the response of other nations became clear, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a stronger statement that condemned the coup – without calling it a coup. But it still didn't say anything about Zelaya returning to the presidency.
The Organisation of American States, the Rio Group (most of Latin America) and the UN general assembly have all called for the "immediate and unconditional return" of Zelaya.
The strong stances from the south brought statements from anonymous state department officials that were more supportive of Zelaya's return. And by Monday afternoon President Barack Obama finally said: "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras."
But at a press conference later that day, Clinton was asked whether "restoring the constitutional order" in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself. She would not say yes.
Why such reluctance to call openly for the immediate and unconditional return of an elected president, as the rest of the hemisphere and the UN has done? One obvious possibility is that Washington does not share these goals.
The coup leaders have no international support, but they could still succeed by running out the clock – Zelaya has less than six months left in his term. Will the Obama administration support sanctions against the coup government in order to prevent this? The neighbouring governments of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador have already fired a warning shot by announcing a 48-hour cut-off of trade.
By contrast, one reason for Clinton's reluctance to call the coup a coup is because the US Foreign Assistance Act prohibits funds going to governments where the head of state has been deposed by a military coup.
Unconditional is also a key word here: the Obama administration may want to extract concessions from Zelaya as part of a deal for his return to office. But this is not how democracy works. If Zelaya wants to negotiate a settlement with his political opponents after he returns, that is another story. But nobody has the right to extract political concession from him in exile, over the barrel of a gun.
There is no excuse for this coup. A constitutional crisis came to a head when Zelaya ordered the military to distribute materials for a non-binding referendum to be held last Sunday. The referendum asked citizens to vote on whether they were in favour of including a proposal for a constituent assembly, to redraft the constitution, on the November ballot. The head of the military, General Romeo Vasquez, refused to carry out the president's orders. The president, as commander-in-chief of the military, then fired Vasquez, whereupon the defence minister resigned. The supreme court subsequently ruled that the president's firing of Vasquez was illegal, and the majority of the Congress has gone against Zelaya.
Supporters of the coup argue that the president violated the law by attempting to go ahead with the referendum after the supreme court ruled against it. This is a legal question. It may be true, or it may be that the supreme court had no legal basis for its ruling. But it is irrelevant to the what has happened. The military is not the arbiter of a constitutional dispute between the various branches of government.
This is especially true in this case, in that the proposed referendum was a non-binding and merely consultative plebiscite. It would not have changed any law nor affected the structure of power. It was merely a poll of the electorate.
Therefore, the military cannot claim that it acted to prevent any irreparable harm. This is a military coup carried out for political purposes.
There are other issues where our government has been oddly silent. Reports of political repression, the closing of TV and radio stations, the detention of journalists, detention and physical abuse of diplomats and what the Committee to Protect Journalists has called a "media blackout" have yet to draw a serious rebuke from Washington. By controlling information and repressing dissent, the de facto Honduran government is also setting the stage for unfair elections in November.
Many press reports have contrasted the Obama administration's rejection of the Honduran coup with the Bush administration's initial support for the 2002 military coup that briefly overthrew President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But actually there are more similarities than differences between the US response to these two events.
Within a day, the Bush administration reversed its official position on the Venezuelan coup, because the rest of the hemisphere had announced that it would not recognise the coup government. Similarly, in this case, the Obama administration is following the rest of the hemisphere, trying not to be the odd man out but at the same time not really sharing their commitment to democracy.
It was not until some months after the Venezuelan coup that the state department admitted that it had given financial and other support "to individuals and organisations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chávez government."
In the Honduran coup, the Obama administration claims that it tried to discourage the Honduran military from taking this action. It would be interesting to know what these discussions were like. Did administration officials say, "You know that we will have to say that we are against such a move if you do it, because everyone else will?" Or was it more like, "Don't do it, because we will do everything in our power to reverse any such coup"? The administration's actions since the coup indicate something more like the former, if not worse.
The battle between Zelaya and his opponents pits a reform president who is supported by labour unions and social organisations against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to choosing not only the supreme court and the Congress, but also the president. It is a recurrent story in Latin America, and the US has almost always sided with the elites.
In this case, Washington has a very close relationship with the Honduran military, which goes back decades. During the 1980s, the US used bases in Honduras to train and arm the Contras, Nicaraguan paramilitaries who became known for their atrocities in their war against the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua.
The hemisphere has changed substantially since the Venezuelan coup in April of 2002, with 11 more left governments having been elected. A whole set of norms, institutions and power relations between south and north in the hemisphere have been altered. The Obama administration today faces neighbours that are much more united and much less willing to compromise on fundamental questions of democracy.
So Clinton will probably not have that much room to manoeuvre. Still, the administration's ambivalence will be noticed in Honduras and can very likely encourage the de facto government there to try and hang on to power. That could be very damaging.