The Indomitable Manuel Zelaya

"I want to leave as a distinguished guest, not as political refugee like the interim government wants." (The deposed Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, on his plans for leaving Honduras, December 10, 2009.)

What seemed last June as a brisk ouster of the Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, has turned into a protracted saga that splintered the Organization of the American States (OAS). The majority of the OAS nations has pushed for Mr. Zelaya’s reinstatement prior to the November 29 presidential vote in Honduras, claiming that they wouldn’t recognize the new government otherwise. A smaller group of states including Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Peru said it would accept Mr. Zelaya’s successor unconditionally. 

The United States initially joined the advocates of Mr. Zelaya’s restoration, alongside Venezuela and Cuba. President Obama’s demand that the Honduran leader be returned to office raised eyebrows in Washington’s conservative circles. After all, conservative commentators argued, Mr. Zelaya befriended the United States’ arch-enemy, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who supplied Honduras with Venezuelan oil at preferential prices and fed Mr. Zelaya’s expanding political ambition.

The Honduran military overthrew Mr. Zelaya for attempting to bend the Constitution to extend his presidency beyond the allowed four years. The Constitutional Court sided with the military in opposing a constitutional referendum proposed by Mr. Zelaya as illegitimate. The referendum, scheduled for June 29, never took place, as Mr. Zelaya was hijacked from the presidential palace and flown into exile in Costa Rica the night before.   

But President Obama wanted to act on his earlier pledge to burnish the United States’ image among its critics in Latin America. In Honduras, that meant standing up for democratic values and defending the right of a democratically elected leader to serve out his full term in office. Last October, the U.S. diplomats helped broker an agreement to that effect between Mr. Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, who replaced him as an interim president. The agreement intended to return Mr. Zelaya to his post until his term expires on January 27, 2010.         

But the deal unraveled. Mr. Micheletti never formed a temporary unity government with Mr. Zelaya, as he had promised. The Hondurans went to polls on November 29 and elected a new president, Porfirio Lobo. And the Supreme Court delivered a final blow to Mr. Zelaya earlier this month, when the judges voted overwhelmingly in favor of his deposition.  

In Washington, the Administration waffled on its commitment to restore Mr. Zelaya under the growing pressure from the Republicans. South Carolina Senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim DeMint, compelled Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to drop their support for Mr. Zelaya in exchange for Mr. DeMint’s approval of two State Department nominees that he was holding up since last summer.

Yet, to Mr. Zelaya’s credit, he fought to the end. And, for a president of a small and impoverished country, he showed an uncanny knack for rallying the regional big shots for his cause. It certainly helped that neither Mexico, nor Brazil wanted Mr. Zelaya’s story to create a precedent and incite opposition forces elsewhere on the continent. Coups have been common in Latin America and the Caribbean for the past five decades, with the most recent one overthrowing the Haitian President Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

Mr. Zelaya fought tirelessly to keep his cause alive. Sneaking back into Honduras in September, he took refuge at the Brazilian Embassy, working the phones day and night to marshal political and financial assistance from across the Latin America. He may not get his job back in the end, but may still be able to negotiate a peaceful exit from Honduras that would not involve his arrest. Mexican authorities have offered to take him in, but he refused to apply for political asylum there—the new government’s precondition for his unhindered exit. Mr. Zelaya told a Honduran radio station that he wanted to continue political activities after leaving the country.   

With Honduran Constitutional Court and Senate insisting that the removal of Mr. Zelaya was legitimate, the Latin American nations may have no choice but to recognize President-elect Lobo. And they would have to overcome their disappointment with a reversal in Washington’s stance. When weighed against other urgent issues, Mr. Zelaya’s misfortune apparently did not rank high enough on the Administration’s totem pole of priorities. Alas, politics, just like management, requires a practical allocation of limited capital and resources. Plus, if President Obama went on trying to prove the Honduran authorities wrong, he would only help the likes of Mr. Chavez by reinforcing the negative image of the United States as a self-righteous and meddlesome superpower.         

At a time, when Central and Latin America appear increasingly divided between socialist and capitalist forces, Mr. Chavez’s detractors may take comfort in knowing that cheap Venezuelan oil is not always an effective bait for weak regimes in the region. Middle class and private businesses in destitute Honduras clearly had the stamina to withstand Mr. Chavez’s encroachments and the ensuing international pressure. Their resistance came at a price, however, since tension and violence rose in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, as Mr. Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti’s supporters clashed.   

I’ll be watching Mr. Zelaya’s fate in the coming weeks, as his story seems to me to be a reflection of broader trends at play in the region.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Honduras, Hugo Chavez, Jim DeMint, Manuel Zelaya, Porfirio Lobo, Roberto Micheletti, Venezuela