A State Department cable released by the website WikiLeaks has reopened
the Washington debate over last year’s ouster of then-Honduran
President Manuel Zelaya.
The leaked July 2009 cable, signed by the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, said the removal of Zelaya by the Honduran military “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” In stark language, the cable takes apart arguments made by defenders of Zelaya’s ouster, calling them fabrications or suppositions.
“If I am fortunate enough to be the chair of the committee, we are going to continue to look into the actions of the ambassador in Honduras. I don’t think he played the appropriate role. The ambassador should not be on the ground trying to manipulate the outcome,” Mack told The Hill.
Mack and other Republicans have said Zelaya’s removal came about from his alleged power grab. Though Zelaya was shipped off to neighboring Costa Rica in the middle of the night by Honduran soldiers, GOP lawmakers have refused to call his ouster a coup. They say Hondurans chose to remove Zelaya through the actions of their legislative and judicial branches of government.
“There is no one with a straight face that can call this a military coup. It is disingenuous,” Mack said.
Others have disagreed, citing the leaked cable as further confirmation that the Honduran president’s ouster was an illegal coup.
Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a liberal think tank, testified before Congress last year about Zelaya’s ouster.
“The cable confirms what we believed from the beginning — this was a coup, it was unconstitutional, and it has helped undermine the rule of law, political and human rights in Honduras, with problems persisting to this day,” Stephens said.
She said the Obama administration has distanced itself from its original take on Zelaya’s removal.
“The reporting in the cable is quite clear in terms of where the administration started out, and it is equally clear that over time the Obama administration’s position on Honduras deviated further and further from the analysis contained in it,” Stephens said. “Given the conditions on the ground in Honduras, and given the repercussions in the region, we continue to believe that standing firm against the coup was the right position at the beginning and the administration should have stuck with it more firmly over time.”
In June 2009, Zelaya was deposed by the Honduran military after it was alleged he wanted to remove the presidency's term limits to stay in power. Zelaya has denied those accusations.
Zelaya was never reinstated to power to finish out his last term, and has now been exiled to the Dominican Republic. Honduras held elections in November 2009 that saw Porfirio Lobo win the presidency.
President Obama first called Zelaya’s ouster “not legal” and said it would set a "terrible precedent" for the region, striking a tone similar to the leaked cable. But later the U.S. government recognized Honduras’s elections last year despite calls for the administration not to do so due to the controversy over Zelaya’s removal.
Though that approach was criticized by some on the left, it has won praise from one key member of the House: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Next Congress, Engel will likely be the ranking member of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Honduras.
Calling it “masterful job,” Engel said the Obama administration took a pragmatic, “middle-of-the-road” position that put itself between both parties up on Capitol Hill.
“The Republicans were annoyed at the beginning that the administration called it a coup and Democrats were annoyed at the end — not all, but some — that they recognized the elections,” Engel said. “I think what we did keeps the United States’ influence in a positive way alive there.”
The Central American nation now has its own representation in Washington to handle its relations with lawmakers.
Honduras has recently contracted with law firm Lanny J. Davis & Associates, run by former Clinton White House special counsel Lanny Davis. Davis-Block, Davis's new strategic consulting firm founded with Josh Block, the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman, is also helping out on the Honduras account.
According to Davis, Honduras’s government would like to move past the leaked cable describing Zelaya’s ouster.
“We are not commenting on past analyses by the Ambassador. The facts speak for themselves,” Davis said. “It's time to look to the future, not the past. Honduras is and has been a loyal ally of the U.S. and a constitutional democracy, operating with separate branches of government under the rule of law.”
Davis is a columnist for The Hill and a contributor to The Hill's Pundits Blog.
In the meantime, the Obama administration will have to contend with the new Republican House next year.
In his interview with The Hill, Mack repeated his earlier calls for Llorens to step aside. The Florida Republican said it was too early for him to call for hearings in Congress’s next session on Honduras but that what happened there will be “on my plate” next year.
“We will have to see. I would like us to do another hearing,” Mack said.