Washington — The recent return of Honduras’s ousted and expelled president to his country is not an issue in which the Jewish stakes are clear or obvious. But Jewish groups are nonetheless taking sides over the turmoil roiling the Central American country and over the Obama administration’s stand on developments there.
On September 4, two weeks before President Manuel Zelaya snuck back into Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s capital, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to reverse the administration’s position and support Zelaya’s overthrow. Zelaya was democratically elected in 2006. But the group, which is primarily devoted to promoting strong military ties between Israel and the United States, was concerned that Zelaya was leading the country away from democracy and into alliances with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the time of his overthrow.
“Zelaya was a man who was moving towards Chavez,” said JINSA’s executive director, Tom Neumann. “He was going anti-American.”
But other Jewish groups, and a key Jewish member of Congress, have defended the administration despite similar concerns, viewing Zelaya’s ouster last June as an affront to the rule of law, whose fostering they view as a more important American interest. Many countries in the western hemisphere have also called for Zelaya’s return to office. No country has recognized the government of Roberto Micheletti, former head of the national legislature, who assumed the presidency following Zelaya’s expulsion.
On September 21, Zelaya was able to sneak back into the country and take refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Violent clashes have since occurred between police and demonstrators rallying to support him.
In an interview, Neumann said that Zelaya’s June 28 overthrow — in which the military removed him from office at gunpoint while he was still in his pajamas, and expatriated him to Costa Rica — was, in fact, lawful, having been ordered by the country’s Supreme Court and backed by its legislature after Zelaya sought to change the country’s constitution. Neumann questioned the State Department’s decision to back the former president, who met with Clinton in Washington on September 3.
“For us to take a position that we are supporting a government that is anti-American and opposing one that is pro-American is absurd,” he said.
JINSA’s comments come as some Jewish groups increase their focus on Chavez and his growing relationship with Iran. In a visit to the Middle East in early September, Chavez agreed to export 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to Iran, which, despite ample oil reserves, has limited refining capacity of its own. At a news conference in Damascus during his tour, Chavez lashed out against Israel as “a country that annihilates people and is hostile to peace.”
It was Zelaya’s growing connection to Chavez that sparked JINSA’s engagement. “Honduras as itself is no threat to Israel,” Neumann said. “But Honduras as part of the bigger picture is.” He cited a growing nexus between Venezuela and countries that he said support Middle East terrorism, including Iran, Syria and Libya.
Zelaya has been accused of seeking to change the Honduran constitution so that he could remain president beyond his single four-year term, mirroring Chavez’s actions in Venezuela last February, when he won an end to presidential term limits in a national referendum. Zelaya’s term was set to expire this December. After his expulsion, he accepted a compromise offered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that would restore him to the presidency with limited powers until the November 29 elections, in which he would not run, and grant an amnesty to all sides. Micheletti has rejected it.
Zelaya “was found to be in violation of the law of Honduras,” diplomat Roberto Flores Bermúdez, who served as Zelaya’s ambassador to the United States, told JINSA in a September conference call. Ruling that he had breached the law, the Supreme Court ordered Zalaya’s arrest. Flores said the armed forces were authorized under the law to carry out the arrest. He insisted that Zelaya’s removal from the country was necessary to prevent violence.
The State Department disagreed. Analysts have noted, among other things, that even the Honduran army’s chief counsel acknowledged that the military violated Honduran law by deposing Zelaya and expelling him from the country instead of bringing him to court to stand trial for abuse of power. Now that he’s back, Micheletti has called on Brazil to hand over Zelaya for trial. “We are waiting for him,” he told reporters. “A court is ready to proceed against him, and a jail is also ready.”
The State Department froze more than $30 million in humanitarian aid to Honduras after Zelaya’s ouster. And the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government corporation funded by Congress to provide targeted aid to certain countries, cut $11 million more. Other funds, including money earmarked for HIV/AIDS treatment, still go to Honduras.
“President Zelaya came to office through a democratic process,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in announcing the decision to freeze funds.
Other Jewish groups are more supportive of the State Department’s approach. They believe that the Obama administration’s backing for the rule of law can help restore American relationships in the Latin American world.
“Believe me, we’re not fans of Chavez,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee. “However, looking at the future of the hemisphere, and the importance of the rule of law, we do believe it is important to send a message. And the message is, the way to do it is through the right channels, lawful channels.”
The disagreement over Honduras’s status also pits JINSA against Rep. Howard Berman of California, the influential Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Berman, a longtime supporter of Israel, authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times the day of Clinton’s meeting with Zelaya, pushing the State Department to call the overthrow a coup and to cut aid. He said the Micheletti government has been stalling, hoping to hold power through the November 29 elections.
“No matter what we think of Zelaya (and I don’t think highly of him) and his actions to change the Honduran constitution, it is a fact that his mandate to govern was gained in a fully transparent election,” Berman wrote. “Democracy and the rule of law are not so fully established in this hemisphere that the coup can be treated in isolation and as an exception that is allowed to stand.”
Contact Matthew Berger at email@example.com