The Obama administration last week brokered what looked like a promising deal to end the political crisis in Honduras. Sadly, this week it already is fraying. The de facto leaders of Honduras are foot-dragging, prompting President Manuel Zelaya, whom they ousted in a civilian-military coup four months ago, to issue an ultimatum from his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
Both sides need to stand down and focus on restoring democracy before the country's Nov. 29 presidential election. The Obama administration, meanwhile, must hold firm to its principles and quit backing away from its stated belief that Zelaya should be allowed to serve out the remaining three months of his term.
Under the accord, the two sides were to form a national unity government by today and let the Honduran Congress decide whether to return Zelaya to office. Although the agreement did not set a date for the vote or specifically guarantee Zelaya's restitution, it called for "an end to the situation facing the country." The deposed president signed, in the apparent belief that the vote would be a formality and that he would be back in office within a week. The de facto leader, Roberto Micheletti, seemed to be compromising in order to secure international backing for the next election and an end to the country's isolation. The European Union, the Organization of American States and the U.S. had said they wouldn't recognize the next president if Zelaya weren't returned to office first.
Now Micheletti and his allies are dithering, waiting to call Congress back from recess until the Supreme Court and the attorney general issue nonbinding opinions on Zelaya's return. Without Congress, no government can be formed. As usual, they're trying to run out the clock. Zelaya, in turn, is threatening to pull out of the deal if he isn't reinstated today. The Micheletti camp responds: Sorry, a deal is a deal. This leaves U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and the rest of the verification commission established under the deal in the awkward position of sitting around with nothing to verify.
Although still saying it supports Zelaya's return to power, the U.S. government seems to be punting. "This is now a Honduran process," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "It's not for us to interpret the agreement." But it is the government's job to continue pressing for what's right, alongside its Latin American allies.
The path back to democracy has been clear from the start: Zelaya should return to power under an agreement not to tamper with the constitution -- the issue that incited the Honduran elite in the first place -- and serve the remainder of his term as part of a unity government with international oversight. The U.S., which reopened its consulate after the accord was signed, should not lift sanctions unless this happens.
If the Obama administration chooses to recognize the election without Zelaya first being reinstated, it will find itself at odds with the rest of Latin America. That would be a setback for democracy and for the United States.