The election of Porfirio Lobo on November 29 represents a giant leap backwards for Honduras and Latin America as a whole. After months of protracted negotiations, the U.S. government suddenly threw its weight behind the illegitimate coup government of Roberto Micheletti and supported elections under its authority. The shameful episode damages Obama’s credibility in Latin America and sets a dangerous precedent in a region with a chequered past.

Last June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power at gunpoint by armed soldiers, and the speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti was installed as interim leader. Zelaya’s “crime” was to plan a public consultation on moves to change the constitution. The coup was roundly condemned by world leaders, with President Obama calling the coup “illegal”. Yet five months later, the U.S. government has changed tack, backing coup-sponsored elections and grossly damaging the democratic process in Latin America.

The role of the U.S. in the Honduras crisis has been pivotal since day one. Obama’s initial condemnation of the coup was welcomed by many pundits, especially since the U.S. has a history of backing right-wing coups in Latin America. The Obama administration’s early strategy focused on returning President Zelaya to power and restoring democracy, while the coup government’s strategy was to hold onto power until it held elections for a new president. The U.S. responded by cutting aid to Honduras and threatened the military-backed regime with continued international isolation until it negotiated a plan that would enable Zelaya to return to the presidency.

Following months of tense standoffs, which involved President Zelaya clandestinely returning from exile to seek refuge in the Brazilian embassy, there was a breakthrough. On October 30, an agreement was brokered by the U.S. State Department that included the restitution of Zelaya to the Honduran presidency. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not enforce a timeframe on restoring Zelaya and coup government was prepared to run down the clock on his term (which ends in January), thus negating the agreement. Then, to the anger of other Latin American leaders, the U.S. decided to back coup-sponsored elections. The stunning volte-face was linked to a state department deal with Republican members of the U.S. Congress (vocal supporters of the coup) wherein the Obama administration recognized elections in exchange for Senate confirmation of its cabinet nominations.

The decision to support the coup completely undermines Obama’s Latin American policy. How can the U.S. lecture Cuba on the merits of democracy when it continues to support coups in the region?  How does Obama expect to repair relations with countries like Venezuela and Bolivia who are already suspicious of U.S. behaviour in the region? Has the Obama administration inadvertently given the green light to other coup attempts? The harsh reality is that Latin American relations do not feature on Obama’s replete radar. A senior staffer in the Senate recently described the role of Obama’s Latin America advisor in the National Security Council as that of “keeping Latin America away from the president at all costs.” If the Obama administration continues to practice this brand of duplicitous diplomacy, then democratic Latin American governments will be the ones advised to keep their distance from the White House.

Michael Collins, December 2009