Two GOP lawmakers returned from a weekend trip to Honduras with a heightened understanding of the presidential crisis there — and a proposal for its resolution.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) told The Hill that a presidential candidate from ousted President Manuel Zelaya's own Liberal Party gave the visiting congressmen the proposal, which Bilbray is going to ask the Obama administration to accept. Under the offer, interim President Roberto Micheletti would voluntarily step down and leadership of the country would go to constitutional succession. However, if Zelaya returned to face charges and was then acquitted, he could return to office.
"The majority of folks think Zelaya should come back to the country, but to stand trial," Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said.
Mack told The Hill that he found Hondurans to be in "disbelief" at the Obama administration's reaction to the ouster of Zelaya.
"Whether or not [Hondurans] agree on how he was removed all of them agree that he broke the constitution, broke the law," Mack said. "A large majority believe he should not return to Honduras and to power."
Bilbray said the U.S. can't put itself in a position of supporting a president over a country's constitution and the rule of law. "That's a scary place for us to find ourselves, especially considering our history," he said.
"For the [Obama] administration to propose the return of the old president and to put him back into power would really be a slap in the face to constitutional rule," Bilbray said, adding that he believed the administration "jumped the gun" on its assessment of the Honduras crisis.
"I think [Hondurans] were absolutely shocked at the American response."
The congressmen's visit came as Zelaya was camped at the Nicaraguan border, a move that Mack called incitement and even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has voiced the administration's opinion that Zelaya be returned to power, called "reckless."
The administration confirmed Monday that it wants Zelaya reinstated while not committing to tighter sanctions beyond cutting military aid. "Our policy remains the same, that we want the restoration of
democratic order and that includes the return by mutual agreement of
the democratically elected president, and that's President Zelaya," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
Mack and Bilbray both said that they saw calm in the streets on their visit, which included meetings with Micheletti, the Honduran supreme court, members of the Central American nation's congress, human-rights groups and Honduran business leaders.
The American delegation also met with presidential candidates who will run for Zelaya's seat as scheduled in November.
"Everybody — his friends, members of his own party, the congress, the supreme court, the attorney general — everybody was telling [Zelaya] what he was doing was illegal and unconstitutional," Mack said.
"His position as an operating head of state wasn't really a questionable issue" among the Hondurans with whom they met, Bilbray said in regard to Zelaya's ouster a month ago.
"If there was a mistake made there, it was not that the army removed him," Bilbray said. "Instead of taking him and putting him in prison the army took him to the border."
Mack said he encountered Hondurans who take umbrage at the word "coup" being used to describe the automatic removal by the supreme court triggered by the president's actions.
"The Organization of American States, State Department and Obama administration got it wrong," Mack said. "We're siding with the OAS and Chavez and Castro and that group over an ally."
Mack said Zelaya "is playing a game here and Hugo Chavez is pulling the strings." The Venezuelan leader has accused U.S. agencies including the State Department of having a hand in the overthrow, but has stopped short of directly accusing President Obama.
"The pattern that was being set by Zelaya was following Chavez's pattern of pushing the constitutional limits and pushing for life terms as president," Bilbray said. The referendum Zelaya was pushing, an effort deemed illegal by the country's highest court, would have extended presidential term limits much like a constitutional referendum Chavez put forth twice to extend his time in office.
"Chavez's goal is to test and prod and push anywhere and everywhere he can," Mack said. "His goal is to get his friends and allies into leadership positions in these countries and destabilize Latin America. He really doesn't care about the people of Latin America; what he cares about is power.
"The people of Honduras should be congratulated and held up for what they have done," Mack said of the Zelaya ouster. "The State Department appears to be standing with the likes of Hugo Chavez and not on the side of freedom and democracy."
Bilbray says it's not a matter of right or left, but a matter of practicing what the U.S. preaches — particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. has encouraged the rule of law over the cult of personality.
"We do not create long-term damage to the concept of constituional limitiation," he said. "We don't want to send the signal to other countries that constitutional oversight isn't important."