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
“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
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
“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
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.
In his new venture into international affairs, DeMint,
entering the last year of his first Senate term, has reprised the role of the
late Sen. Jesse Helms.
From his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Helms, a North Carolina Republican, would dispatch aides and occasionally
travel himself on unannounced foreign trips to meet with anti-Communist
governments and groups.
Before his visit to Honduras in early October, DeMint used
Helms’ tactic of blocking White House nominations to effect change.
DeMint, who sits on the foreign relations panel, put holds
on Obama’s choices of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for
Western Hemisphere affairs and Tom Shannon to be ambassador to Brazil.
Shannon, a Bush administration holdover, previously held the
senior State Department post for which the Senate confirmed Valenzuela on Nov.
5 after DeMint lifted his hold. Other Republican senators now are blocking a
vote on Shannon in a separate dispute over Obama’s policy toward Cuba.
In Honduras, neither Zelaya nor Micheletti are on the Nov.
29 ballot, but their political parties have leading candidates.
Zelaya’s insistence that he be restored to power is partly
symbolic since his term ends in three months, but his earlier attempts to
extend his tenure spur doubts that he would leave office quietly.
Under a U.S.-brokered accord last month, Zelaya would stop
urging his followers to boycott the Nov. 29 elections and would work with
Micheletti to form a “national unity government.”
The accord doesn’t guarantee that Zelaya would be restored
to power, but in recent days he’s accused the United States of reneging on
secret assurances he claims to have received from Washington.
Obama’s break with Zelaya is at odds with the views of some
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, called for Zelaya’s
return to power Thursday after a three-day visit to Honduras.
Schakowsky said she’d seen widespread evidence of
human-rights abuses under Micheletti, including the violent dispersal of
peaceful protesters and a clampdown on Honduran journalists.
“I myself was filmed as I left the 1/8Brazilian3/8
embassy by a uniformed soldier in a ski mask,” Schakowsky told reporters
in a conference call from Miami International Airport.
Schakowsky said she’d met with Zelaya, who “was very
calm and upbeat and did not seem agitated or tense in any way despite the
number of weeks he’s been inside the Brazilian Embassy.”
More than 240 professors and Latin America scholars from
around the country Wednesday sent Obama a letter denouncing “the
innumerable and grave human rights abuses committed by the coup government in
State Department spokesman Kelly on Thursday deflected
questions from reporters asking about the alleged abuses.
“I’m just not aware of those reports,” Kelly said.
“I think that we would need to have more details about it for us to really
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.