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Honduran coup leaders try to beat the clock

Despite efforts to return ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the interim government is dragging its feet until elections in November. The Obama administration shouldn't tolerate this strategy.

August 12, 2009

Tick, tick, tick.

That's the sound of the de facto government of Honduras running out the clock on the term of Manuel Zelaya, the president ousted in a civilian-military coup on June 28. Sadly, it also might be the sound of a time bomb inadvertently activated by the country's constitutional crisis and deepening political divisions. In the six weeks since the coup, the Organization of American States, the Obama administration and a mediator -- Costa Rican President Oscar Arias -- have been unable to bring the leaders of the coup to their senses.

Arias has put forward a sensible proposal that would allow the ousted president to return to Honduras from forced exile to finish a truncated term as part of a national unity government. Zelaya would receive amnesty in connection with charges of trying to hold a constitutional referendum against the will of Congress and the Supreme Court. In exchange, he would agree to forgo any attempt to change the constitution or to prolong his tenure. And the Nov. 29 elections would be moved up, with international oversight. The government of Roberto Micheletti, installed after the coup, and the military say they support Arias' mediation, but they have been foot-dragging, most recently dickering over the makeup of an OAS delegation to visit Honduras instead of agreeing to a deal for Zelaya's return.

Meeting with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada in Guadalajara this week, President Obama reiterated that the coup was illegal and that Zelaya should be returned to office. He also lashed out at critics on the left as "hypocritical" for saying the U.S. has not acted forcefully enough to press the interim government into retreat when they're usually telling the gringos to back off in Latin America. OK, point taken. The administration has frozen the visas of a handful of the interim leaders and has suspended tens of millions of dollars in military and economic aid, but it has been reluctant to withhold more aid from one of the hemisphere's poorest nations.

But more must be done. Leaders of the interim government fear that if Zelaya were returned to power, he would renege on his word or that his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, would somehow intervene. That's why they hope to hold out until the November election. They believe that once the vote is deemed free and fair, all will be forgiven and Honduras can start the new year with a clean slate.

But Latin American governments have already said this won't do. And the Obama administration must make perfectly clear that it would not go along either. Together, they must convince the Honduran coup leaders that this misguided strategy will not restore legitimacy and will not resolve the country's internal divisions or external isolation.

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