Analysis: Little U.S. leverage in Honduran coup

Honduras Coup
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya light a flammable spray in front of the National Congress during a march through Tegucigalpa on Thursday. The Organization of American States said it will suspend Honduras if Zelaya isn't back in office by Saturday. Eduardo Verdugo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The coup that deposed the president of Honduras exposed the small leverage that even millions of dollars in aid and longtime military cooperation will buy.

Washington has few direct means to pressure those who packed President Manuel Zelaya onto a plane out of the country on Sunday — not the military leaders who carried out the coup or the civilian lawmakers who backed it.

America's troubled history in Latin America, from power broker with bloodied hands in coups past to seemingly indifferent next-door neighbor in recent years, limits everything President Barack Obama can do now.

Obama warned against a return to the "dark past" of coups and instability in Latin America, but he is moving cautiously, and much more slowly than many allies, to distance himself from what the U.S. calls an illegitimate interim Honduran government.

Long-term reliance
Despite U.S. calls along with the U.N. and the Organization of American States for Zelaya to be returned to power, the Obama administration hasn't suspended some $45 million in annual aid or trade perks — benefits that continue to flow to Honduras, a reliable U.S. ally in a part of the world where American motives are often considered suspect.

The U.S. also hasn't yanked its ambassador from Tegucigalpa, even as all European Union ambassadors abandoned the Honduran capital.

And even the administration's decision to suspend training exercises and counter-narcotics operations with the Honduran military — one of the few moves the White House did make this week — is complicated by America's long-term reliance on Honduras as a base and dependable Latin American partner. Those close ties, shown in the scores of Honduran military officers who have trained in the U.S. over the years, would not be severed easily.

Administration officials say they hope the weight of international condemnation and the threat of economic isolation will speed a political compromise that restores Zelaya to office. In the meantime the U.S. is letting Honduras' Latin American neighbors and international organizations play the heavy.

The State Department apparently was doing legal gymnastics this week to avoid calling Zelaya's ouster a "military coup," since that designation triggers automatic shutdowns of some aid.

"The legal review is ongoing," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly offered Thursday. He said that in the meantime the U.S. has moved to "hit the pause button" on programs that would be affected.

'We have limited our contact'
Suspending U.S. economic and military aid would be a blow, but Honduras' position as a significant exporter of textiles, bananas, coffee and other goods to the United States isn't likely to change. Trade between the two countries tops $7 billion annually and Hondurans living in the United States sent home an estimated $2.5 billion on top of that each year before the current economic crisis. That alone is more than a fifth of Honduran GNP.

The coup looked like a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, complete with apparently American-made M-16 rifles cradled by soldiers whose leaders were trained at a notorious U.S.-funded war school accused of countenancing atrocities.

The Pentagon put all but essential military cooperation on hold this week.

"We have limited our contact dramatically, to what I would call minimal contact with the Honduran military as the U.S. government continues to evaluate and make judgments about the way forward," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday.

The military ousts leftist President Manuel Zelaya from office.

More than 500 U.S. servicemen remain on duty at a Honduran air base, however, and military officials said it is hard to imagine the United States walking away from its investment in the expansive Sota Cano complex.

More to the point it is hard to imagine the United States shrugging off the effects, beneficial and corrosive, of decades of military dealings with Honduras.

The United States has depended on close military ties to Honduras for decades, using the Caribbean Central American country as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" to launch missions against the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s and housing its major Central American operations hub there today.

Frequent critics of U.S. policy in Latin America say the political crisis could be an opportunity for Obama, who has pledged a better relationship with Latin America.

"The United States has had a record in Honduras that is probably the most negative in Central America," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Now it is time for redemption, and the United States has taken a very encouraging first step" in saying Zelaya must be restored.