- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Costa Rican President Oscar Arias reportedly will negotiate a resolution of the impasse between the ousted president of Honduras and the new provisional president. This move promises to defuse an explosive situation and develop a compromise acceptable to both sides.

On Sunday evening, two private jets take off from Washington Dulles International Airport, one carrying the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador and the other carrying Venezuelan state TV cameras and correspondents to record Manuel “Mel” Zelaya’s homecoming.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, the two presidents split off on their own homeward trajectory. Mr. Zelaya and the correspondents head for Honduras and, failing to land there, divert to Managua, Nicaragua. The twinned departure but separate flight plans reflect the broader division within the hemisphere.

Consensus exists throughout the hemisphere that you do not pull a sitting president out of bed and bundle him onto an aircraft out of the country. No one wants to revisit the sudden removal of heads of state that characterized much of Latin American history during the Cold War. Whether or not the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress approved the measure under Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, the manner in which it was carried out offended all other members of the Organization of American States.

However, no one wants to see fighting in the streets as the 25 percent of the Honduran population who support Mr. Zelaya confront the Honduran armed forces and the 67 percent majority who oppose his return to the presidency.

Therefore, the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador did not bundle Mr. Zelaya onto their plane and seek an airport landing in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

There is a limit to the will and capacity of hemispheric leaders to get Mr. Zelaya home. If he wants to get home, he must negotiate with interim President Roberto Micheletti. He can negotiate from Managua, under the hospitality of Daniel Ortega, or he can seek free lodging in Washington and negotiate at the OAS. The question is, who is ready to moderate?

Washington no longer has a deep stake in Honduran affairs. The Cold War is behind us, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Salvadoran Frente Faribundo Marti now operate as political parties, not revolutionary movements.

However, Washington does have an interest in Honduras and does not wish to see the nation dissolve into a failed state. The transshipment of illegal drugs and the illicit trade in people, goods and arms have created a web of violence that affects all who live in and around the capital city of Tegucigalpa and the commercial city of San Pedro Sula.

Young men drawn into gangs, known as maras (a vicious type of ant) prowl city streets. Distinguished by their tattoos and hand signals, they extort money from small businesses — including elderly women who sell food on sidewalks — steal automobiles and facilitate the transfer of women and children for sale to brothels at Tapachula on the Guatemalan-Mexican border.

As subcontractors to the drug cartels, they aid in shipping drugs and are paid in cocaine and marijuana. Those products then must be sold locally for the young men to obtain cash. This behavior has become a plague contaminating law enforcement, the courts and government officials. The state is weaker than the criminal organizations that live off the narcotics trade and public corruption.

Throw into this context a deposed president struggling to get home. If the organs of the state have concluded that his behavior was unconstitutional, Mr. Zelaya may now turn to criminal organizations. You can imagine the poster, “Wanted: A Team to Reinstall Mel.” Payment can be made in IOUs or mere acquiescence to the deadly pattern of violence in Honduras.

Leadership of those organizations is sophisticated, international and ruthless. The groups will threaten the families of Honduran officials and sow sufficient fear that steadfast rejection of Mr. Zelaya’s return will fade. This is not wild imaginary wanderings but the reality of weak national institutions facing international condemnation, the prospect of losing $43 million bilateral U.S. aid and $52 million in multilateral support in fiscal 2009 and profit-seeking cartels. The stakes are weighted in favor of Mr. Zelaya unless a credible moderator is found.

Washington cannot play the role of an impartial arbiter because it has lost the trust of the interim Honduran government and is perceived as an “evil empire” by Mr. Zelaya’s supporters in Venezuela. The presidents of Argentina and Ecuador are unacceptable to Mr. Micheletti, the interim president. Oscar Arias, who is president of Costa Rica and experienced in hemispheric negotiation, could play that role. In the mid-1980s, he brokered an interim solution during the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan wars and was awarded a Nobel Prize for that effort.

More likely, Enrique Insulza, the OAS secretary-general, will offer to mediate. The Zelaya debacle presents the organization with an opportunity to demonstrate negotiation skills. The historical record of OAS negotiations is not good, principally because the organization has no capacity to enforce agreements.

However, the United States does not have an overwhelming stake in this issue, and it might seek to offer its “good offices” and support to sweeten any compromise. It is an option worth pursuing to deter Mr. Zelaya from dealing with the leadership of criminal enterprises and returning home to an even weaker Honduran state that has failed to stand up to external pressures. In that event, the Honduran people lose, as do we who seek to contain the growing illicit trade with our neighbors in Central America.

Diana Villiers Negroponte is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and author of “The Merida Initiative and Central America: The Challenges of Containing Public Insecurity and Criminal Violence” (Brookings Institution, May 2009).

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