Obama and DeMint locked in proxy fight over Hugo Chavez

The Obama administration and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are squaring off in a foreign policy dispute that has stymied the nominations of two senior diplomatic officials.

Foreign policy experts see the standoff as a proxy fight between conservative Republicans and the Obama administration on how to deal with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s socialist president.

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DeMint has blocked the nominations of Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama’s pick to serve as ambassador to Brazil, and Arturo Valenzuela, the choice for the post of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Richard Verma, the State Department’s assistant secretary of legislative affairs, approached DeMint this past week about releasing the holds but the South Carolina senator is standing firm.

"Both of these nominees rushed to oppose the rule of law in Honduras and want to force a Chavez-style dictator back into power,” DeMint told The Hill. “They exemplify this administration's misguided and heavy-handed tactics against the Honduran people and side with those who trample freedom."

Facing stiff resistance, Obama administration officials have asked Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, to intervene, but to little avail so far.

“I’ve been attempting to work with Sen. DeMint to release the holds; we do need to have those officials,” said Lugar.

“It’s very important in terms of our overall relations with Latin American countries that we’ve have been attempting to enhance with much more vigorous diplomacy,” he added.

DeMint said in an interview that he does not want the standoff over the nominees to erupt into a major confrontation but felt he had to pressure the administration into restoring foreign aid to Honduras.

The question of U.S. relations toward Honduras, a country with nearly 8 million citizens wedged between El Salvador and Nicaragua, has bloomed into a contentious foreign policy fight because of its larger implications for American policy.

Conservatives strongly oppose leveling sanctions against Honduras in response to the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in June. Zelaya, a leftist, was aligned with Chavez, who denounced his ally’s deposal as an illegal coup.

But the Obama administration wants Zelaya to be allowed to return to Honduras to finish his presidential term. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Zelaya earlier this month.

Soldiers staged a nighttime raid of the presidential palace in June, arrested Zelaya in his pajamas and flew him to Costa Rica.

Obama condemned the action as an illegal coup and early this month cut off all non-humanitarian aid, about $30 million, to the impoverished nation. But under pressure from conservatives, Obama has stopped short of calling it a “military coup,” which would have triggered a stronger response, including freezing Honduran bank accounts in the U.S.

The Obama administration has declined to term it a military action because Zelaya was replaced by Roberto Micheletti, the head of Honduras’s Congress.

Conservatives argue the ouster was justified because Zelaya had tried to extend the constitutional term limit on the Honduran presidency.

Valenzuela drew conservative ire by calling the leadership change a “classic military coup” when he testified before the Senate in July.

DeMint bristled at the notion that Zelaya was removed in a coup. He said the military had to take action because the police force was not strong enough to resist Zelaya’s to entrench himself as a long-term leader, adding that Honduras is an important ally that could help contain the spread of Chavez’s influence throughout Latin America.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also emerged a strong supporter of Micheletti and the forces arrayed against Zelaya.

Ros-Lehtinen condemned the decision to curtail aid to Honduras earlier this month.

“I believe this decision will significantly undermine U.S. national security interests and foreign policy priorities in Honduras and the region as a whole,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The U.S. approach to friends and foes is completely backwards. While appeasing the enemies of freedom worldwide, we punish those in Honduras struggling to preserve the rule of law, fundamental liberties, and democratic values.”