Honduran president might find path to power despite K Street campaign

A Washington lobbying campaign to keep ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya out of power may have come up short.

In an agreement Friday between Zelaya and the interim government in Honduras, both sides agreed to allow the president to serve the remaining three months of his term if the country’s Congress decides to reinstate him. The legislators have not yet set a date to vote on his return, and while the Congress originally voted Zelaya out of power many lawmakers have voiced a desire to end the isolation imposed on the country and its current rulers since the ouster.

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This follows months of criticism directed at the Honduran leader by a number of lobbyists and paid advocates in Washington representing business and government leaders in the Central American nation.

Overall, the effort by Honduran business groups and the interim government to earn U.S. backing for Zelaya’s ouster, saying the interim government leaders were in their constitutional rights to overturn the president, could end up costing more than $500,000, according to public records kept by the Justice Department and the Senate Office of Public Records.

Heavy hitters like Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and PR firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates were hired by those in opposition to Zelaya. Others in employ included lobbying firms Cormac Group and Vision Americas, where two former State Department officials from the Bush administration lobbied for a Honduran business association.

In turn, liberal think tanks that focus on U.S. policy toward Latin America kept pressure on the Obama administration to cut off aid and suspend visas for leaders of the de facto government. They celebrated the news Friday that Zelaya might return to power.

“We applaud the agreement reached in Honduras that holds the promise of a rapid return to democratic order and an end to the political crisis that has hurt the Honduran people these last four months,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Davis said his client, the Honduran branch of the Latin America Business Council, was “very happy that the accord was decided by Hondurans for Hondurans.”

He said that the agreement between Zelaya and the interim government includes international support for elections in Honduras next month and no assembly for constitutional reform, which led to the president’s ouster in the first place.

Davis, who writes a column for The Hill, also said it was not absolute that Zelaya would return to power since the nation’s legislature has to reinstate him.

“It is up to the Congress. Last time I looked, the Congress overwhelmingly voted him out of office,” Davis said.

The country's Supreme Court, which also ruled that Zelaya should be removed from office, will likewise weigh in on the deal with a non-binding opinion.

Like their Honduran peers, U.S. business associations became increasingly worried as the political crisis lingered on. Seeing trade drop precipitously with Honduras, a vital market for American textile companies, they pushed the administration to recognize next month’s elections with or without Zelaya’s return in order to resolve the crisis. On Friday, textile groups cheered the agreement.

“I am pleased the negotiators have reached a breakthrough that would begin to restore stability in the region and prevent any further disruption of business,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, in a statement.

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Zelaya was taken by the Honduran military on June 28 and exiled to Costa Rica because of suspicions that by calling for constitutional reforms, he planned to end presidential term limits and remain in power, a charge he has denied. That led to comparisons that he was another Latin American strongman in the mold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Republicans pounced on the Obama administration to stand with the de facto government against an alleged despot. “While this is not a deal I would agree to, we should be proud of the people of Honduras, as well as President Micheletti, for standing strong in their fight to protect their freedom and democracy," Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said in a statement Friday. “The agreement does not provide amnesty. Therefore, once Zelaya comes out of hiding at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, he should be immediately arrested to stand trial for his crimes against the Honduran people."

But Democrats, including both chairmen of Congress’s foreign relations committees, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), pushed for Zelaya’s return.

"I welcome the agreement ending the crisis in Honduras," Kerry said in a statement Friday. "The restoration of democracy is an historic accomplishment for the Honduran people."

A delegation from the State Department was in Honduras this week to speed the resolution process forward. With the agreement in hand, Honduras will no longer be isolated diplomatically by the international community and see its foreign aid and visas to key officials restored.