U.S. business sees Honduran elections as solution to crisis

Executives who run businesses based in Honduras met Wednesday with key House Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member, to discuss their concern over the Central American country. Honduras, a vital market for U.S. textile goods and tourism, has been in political upheaval since the removal of President Manuel Zelaya in June this year.

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“We are barely hanging on,” said Mitch Cummins, who owns Paradise Computers, a computer sales and service and Internet café company in the Central American country. Cummins was one of the four U.S. business leaders who met with lawmakers Wednesday.

“The only way out of this is the elections,” Cummins said.

But the issue of whether the U.S. should recognize the elections next month has become a flashpoint between the parties on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have called for U.S. support, but Democrats are asking the Obama administration to press for Zelaya’s return. Lobbying in Washington regarding the crisis has picked up, with a delegation from the State Department heading to Honduras this week to try to make progress on the stalled peace process.

The business leaders who work in the tourism and fishing industries in Honduras said they have had to lay off dozens of native employees since Zelaya’s ouster. Some estimated their sales have fallen by 80 percent since the crisis has taken hold.

A State Department travel advisory issued last week that warned Americans not to travel to Honduras because of “the current unstable political and security situation” is likely to cut into their business further, the executives said.

In addition, seven trade associations wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, pushing for help in ending the standoff between Zelaya and the de facto government in Honduras. Zelaya has returned to Honduras but has been essentially confined to the Brazilian embassy there.

The U.S. government’s position of refusing to recognize future election results will reduce Honduras to “a pariah state for an indefinite period,” the business groups, including the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the National Council of Textile Organizations and the National Retail Federation, wrote.

“We are increasingly concerned that with the continued uncertainty regarding the political situation that the U.S.-Honduran textile complex — one of the most vibrant in the Western Hemisphere — is in danger of being permanently damaged,” the letter says.

The trade associations say that imports of textiles and apparel from Honduras dropped by 38 percent in June, July and August this year. Additionally, exports of U.S. textile products fell by 38 percent during the last three months, a $165 million loss, according to the letter.

Tuesday’s letter follows similar correspondence the trade associations sent to Clinton last month in which they noted how important trade with Honduras is to the U.S. textile industry.

The administration, however, is facing international pressure as well as calls from liberal members of the Democratic Caucus not to recognize the elections next month until the crisis involving Zelaya’s ouster is ended.

In a letter sent Tuesday to President Barack Obama, 16 House Democrats, including Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), said the United States should not recognize the elections.

“It is time for the administration to join this growing hemispheric and international consensus and unambiguously state that elections organized by an undemocratic government that has denied critics of the regime the right to free speech, assembly, and movement, cannot and will not be considered free and fair by our government,” the letter states.

The letter cites reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailing human rights abuses by the de facto government. Clinton and others from Washington have called upon the government in Honduras to let Zelaya return to power, which it has refused to do.

On June 28, the Honduran military sent Zelaya into exile in Costa Rica. Coup leaders said they suspected he planned to end presidential term limits and stay in power indefinitely, a charge Zelaya has denied. U.S. officials have since gotten behind a plan proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to end the crisis, but both sides in Honduras cannot agree on Zelaya’s future role there.

That has left the country in turmoil, with street protests flaring up against the government since Zelaya was exiled. Nevertheless, elections are planned next month in Honduras to select a new president.

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As the peace process has stalled, the State Department has gotten more involved in trying to reach a resolution. Later this week, high-level department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, will travel to Honduras in an effort to move the process forward.

Meanwhile, U.S. business leaders will continue to push for U.S. recognition of the elections. 

“I have not heard of any solution other than have an election to get out of this thing,” Cummins said.