Hondurans lobby against deposed leader

Honduran business leaders are turning to Washington lobbyists to convince Congress that it should support rather than oppose the military removal of President Manuel Zelaya from office.

The Honduran branch of CEAL, the Latin American equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has hired Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to make the case to U.S. lawmakers and foreign diplomats.

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And leading the lobbying effort for the firm is partner Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to President Bill Clinton and well-known supporter of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she ran for president in 2008. (Davis is also a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.)

The lobbying blitz began Monday, one day before Zelaya met with Clinton as part of his push to be reinstated. President Obama has questioned the country’s military removing a democratically elected president, an action some are calling a “coup d’etat.”

Davis said he has not called Clinton to set up a meeting between her and Honduran government officials and does not plan to do so.

Davis said the business group wants to restore order to Honduras, which has been in upheaval since the country’s military ousted Zelaya on June 28 after he tried to alter the constitution.

“This is about the rule of law. That is the only message we have,” Davis said, adding that Zelaya “was acting unconstitutionally and illegally” when he pushed for a voter referendum to change presidential term limits. The Central American nation’s other branches of government opposed his move, and his decision to ignore them led to his ouster.

Davis’s firm orchestrated a Capitol Hill lobbying blitz that began earlier this week. Orrick has arranged meetings in Washington between congressional aides for both chambers’ Foreign Relations committees and a number of current and former high-level government officials from Honduras, including Enrique Rodriguez, a Honduran congressman; Roberto Flores Bermudez, former Honduran ambassador to the United States; and Felicito Avila, a presidential candidate and labor leader.

Davis and others at Orrick are also working with Guillermo Pérez-Cadalso, a former foreign minister and supreme court justice for Honduras, on congressional testimony he intends to give this week. Pérez-Cadalso is scheduled to be a witness for a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the Honduran crisis, chaired by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), on Friday.

Orrick lobbyists are distributing a two-page chronology to lawmakers and aides that details Zelaya’s efforts to change the constitution this year and how he was refuted by other government officials in Honduras for doing so — including a supreme court ruling and a vote against the move by the nation’s legislature.

On behalf of the Honduran business leaders, lobbyists are blaming Zelaya for inciting the political crisis. The business leaders say Zelaya led a mob of supporters to seize election materials at a Honduran air force base, according to the document. Soon after, an arrest warrant was issued for him and he was forced into exile.

The business leaders can expect to find support from Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.). On Thursday, Mack introduced a resolution that condemns Zelaya for his push to change his term limits.

“Manuel Zelaya’s record on quashing freedom looked like it was ripped from Hugo Chavez’s playbook. Zelaya trampled the Honduran constitution, pushing for an illegal referendum to allow him to rule indefinitely,” Mack said in a statement.

On Wednesday, 17 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), wrote Secretary Clinton and asked her to meet with officials from the interim government of Honduras. “We are concerned by what appears to be one-sided support of Mr. Zelaya, and it appears this situation was exacerbated by this administration’s insistence in disregarding Honduran law,” the letter said.

Orrick plans to file a client registration for the Honduran business leaders under the Lobbying Disclosure Act in the coming days.

There have been discussions between Honduran representatives and officials in the Obama administration as well. There has been no meeting yet with Secretary Clinton, who met with Zelaya on Tuesday.

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With U.S. backing, Zelaya and the interim government in Honduras have agreed to talks to resolve the crisis with Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president, as mediator.

The Honduran business group has begun taking out ads — including one in The Hill — that seek to show the nation is united against Zelaya and behind the talks with Arias.

“They are supporting 100 percent Secretary Clinton’s initiative to mediate with a long-term resolution with President Arias leading that effort,” Davis said about his client.

The U.S. government took a hard line in the first days after Zelaya’s ouster. Obama said the president’s ouster was “not legal” last week and repeated his harsh language Tuesday in Russia.

“Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies,” Obama said at the New Economic School graduation ceremony in Moscow. “We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.”

The Organization of American States has also taken a tough stance against Honduras’s interim government for the ouster of Zelaya. The group suspended the country’s membership on Sunday, calling Zelaya’s expulsion a “coup d’etat.”

For now, the U.S. government has gotten behind the Arias-led mediation. Talks began Thursday in Costa Rica between the two warring factions.

“We hope through this mechanism there’ll be a peaceful resolution of this conflict,” said Ian Kelly, spokesman for the State Department, at a Wednesday press briefing.