Cleaning up democracy: The rightful return of President Zelaya (Rep. Michael Honda)

Swirling south of here, in a gulf between the Americas, a crisis is brewing and already affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, threatening food and energy security, and undermining our nation’s reputation regionally. Yet it has nothing to do with an oil spill.

There is an ever-growing gulf of political proportions gumming up U.S.-Latin-American relations, and it has nothing to do with BP and everything to do with Honduras, a country from which I recently returned. The need for a cleanup, incidentally, is equally paramount. Instead of oil, however, what needs cleaning up this time is Honduras’ democracy.

The residue left in Honduras from last year’s coup — a coup that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and installed interim President Roberto Micheletti, a favorite of the Honduran political establishment — remains ever-present in the minds of many mainstream leaders in and throughout Latin America. Protests by Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and others within the Union of South American Nations persist at a vehement pitch as Honduras marked the one-year anniversary of the coup on Monday.

The claim, furthermore, that Honduras’s current president, Porfirio Lobo, was elected into power via free and fair elections is questioned by many of the leaders in the region, who believe that Lobo’s rule remains illegitimate. Anti-Lobo sentiment inspired a recent boycott threat by several South American countries of the European Union-Latin American summit meeting in Madrid last month. The invited Lobo backed out, abstaining from the summit.

Here’s the real rub for the U.S. in all of this: Given Washington’s subsequent silence on the coup, on Zelaya’s exile and on the call for investigations, we are not only losing an opportunity to enhance democracy for the people of Honduras, but simultaneously endangering allegiances throughout South America and undermining our multilateral efforts elsewhere.

Before the gulf widens further, and without changing course too dramatically, the U.S. can still restore relations with Latin America. The foundational framework is already there. President Barack Obama’s original outreach — his Summit of the Americas’ pro-engagement speech in Trinidad and Tobago, his ending of travel restrictions to Cuba, and his extension of a diplomatic hand to Venezuela — began to rebuild the damage done by President George W. Bush-era policies. Latin America first reacted favorably, but floundered soon after, wanting more walk, less talk.

We now have an opportunity to walk the talk. This month, the Organization of American States announced at its annual meeting that it plans to send a high-level delegation to Honduras to “study the political process,” a first step in a series of confidence-building mechanisms aimed ultimately at readmitting Honduras to the OAS. So too must the U.S. thoughtfully assess Honduran polity before encouraging a full return to the intercontinental body.

Holding Honduras accountable to a host of reform measures should be a stated prerequisite for OAS readmission. First, one of the best ways to build confidence among South American leaders, the OAS and the people of Honduras is for the U.S. to call for the rightful and responsible return of Zelaya calmly and quickly. This demonstrates the Honduran government’s commitment to a sometimes painful part of any democracy — the willingness to countenance criticism and civic concern.

Second, the U.S. must ensure international oversight of any investigative and reconciliatory initiatives, including the Honduran government’s truth commission and the alternative truth body established by human rights groups (which are doubtful of government intent and neutrality).

Third, the U.S. must not let arbitrary arrests, beating and killings of government opponents and journalists and the sacking of judges continue unabated and unaddressed — it sends the wrong signal to Honduras’s democracy and the wrong sign to the rest of Latin America.

Finally, I have joined my colleagues in Congress on a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton requesting that the State Department direct Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner to visit Honduras and make a prompt assessment of what is occurring there with regards to human and political rights. Without an early and accurate report, we would be reluctant to see U.S. support for Honduras continue without significant restrictions.

If Washington wants to welcome a new era in Latin American relations, the quickest way to usher it in (and with it all the associated trade and diplomatic benefits), is for America to help Honduras hone in on human rights, rule of law, accountable governance and freedom of movement for opposition figures like Zelaya. Our calls for something similar in Cuba and Venezuela will continue to ring hollow as long as Honduras remains exempt from similar American sentiment.

As the OAS realizes its report for July and discerns Honduras’ readiness for OAS resubmission, let us not miss this window to weigh in with equal candor and commitment to cleaning up coup-prone environments. This is our moment to show Honduras and the rest of Latin America that we are serious about a clean democracy, at home and abroad.