WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican known for his efforts to block influence domestic immigration and health-care issues, has scored a foreign-policy coup by helping to compel the Obama administration to shift its stance on strife-ridden Honduras.
After demanding for months that deposed Honduran President Mel Zelaya be restored to power, senior State Department officials now say they'll accept the outcome of Nov. 29 elections in the Central American country even if Zelaya doesn't reclaim his post.
"We support the elections process there," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday. "We have provided technical assistance. ... These elections will be important to restoring Democratic and constitutional order in Honduras."
That position is a marked change from the tough stance President Barack Obama took in the days following the June 28 removal of Zelaya, when Honduran soldiers launched a dawn raid and whisked him away in his pajamas.
"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there," Obama said the day after Zelaya's ouster.
DeMint, by contrast, cited a Honduran Supreme Court ruling, later approved by the Honduran Congress, that the military had followed constitutional provisions in removing Zelaya and installing Roberto Micheletti as interim president.
While the U.S. government froze aid and took other punitive steps, DeMint held up two State Department nominations all summer and into the fall.
Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of Americas, a New York-based organization of international businesses, said DeMint has had a major impact on the Obama administration's evolving response to the Honduran strife.
"DeMint's role has been disproportionate to his interest in Latin America," Sabatini said. "He chose to take a stand on this, and he plunged headlong into it. He drew a line in the sand."
In August, a report by the nonpartisan Library of Congress concurred with DeMint, saying that Zelaya's ouster was legal, though it said Honduran soldiers had overstepped the law in secreting him out of the country.
Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, snuck back into Honduras on Sept. 21. He's holed up in the Brazilian Embassy there, sleeping on a couch, wearing his trademark Stetson, giving interviews and greeting various dignitaries.
DeMint, the only senator to have visited Honduras during the crisis, stopped blocking the U.S. diplomatic posts on Nov. 5. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given him her word that the United States would no longer insist on Zelaya's return to power, a claim Clinton aides haven't disputed.
"I'm very thankful that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have finally taken the side of the Honduran people and have committed to letting them choose their own future," DeMint told McClatchy on Saturday.
Zelaya accused the U.S. leaders of abandoning him.
"They have left us in the middle of the river, saying now that their priority is the elections and not the restoration of democracy," Zelaya said Friday on a Costa Rican radio station.
While DeMint's opposition played a key role in forcing the U.S. policy shift, he got a big assist from Zelaya.
At the time of his removal, Zelaya was seeking to annul a constitutional clause limiting the president to a single term and to hold a referendum on the change.
When lawmakers refused to support the referendum, Zelaya imported ballots from Chavez, the flamboyant anti-American Venezuelan leader with whom he'd earlier concluded a major oil-import deal at discounted prices.
Once ensconced in the Brazilian Embassy, the deposed Zelaya said "Israeli mercenaries" were trying to kill him with poison gas and described broad conspiracies behind his ouster. He later apologized for the claim about Israel.
Latin America experts who know Zelaya say it's hardly an understatement to call him eccentric.
"He has no ideological or intellectual convictions whatsoever," said Sabatini, the analyst at the Council of Americas.
"His ideology has always been a melange of strange theories pulled from odd places that have no coherence and no bearing on reality," Sabatini said. "What he got from Chavez is oil and money. He was bought and paid for by Chavez."
As part of a broader effort to reverse President George W. Bush's often unilateral foreign policy, Obama has tried to mend fences with Chavez, even shaking hands with him at their first meeting in April.
Chavez, who called Bush "the devil" in 2006, has praised Obama while continuing to attack U.S. influence in Latin America.