Last Tuesday, as ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was finishing his fifth day crouched along the Honduras-Nicaragua border, hiding in coffee fields to avoid detection, an intimate gathering of ambassadors, officials, journalists, think tankers, and Latin America watchers convened at the Argentine Embassy in Washington. They were there to hear a member of Zelaya's cabinet speak. From the assembled representatives of Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador, Enrique Reina, a former minister of communications who is now Zelaya's choice as his ambassador to the United States, received a universally warm welcome. "Let the Honduran dictatorship know that no government that rises in the black night ... will ever be recognized," thundered the Argentine ambassador to the United States, Hector Timerman.
But after the speeches, discussions around the room exposed cracks -- not within Latin America, but in Washington, where the buzz on everyone's lips was an "alarming" split in U.S. policy. Since Zelaya was ousted on June 28, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has played its hand carefully, calling for Zelaya to be reinstated and hewing close to the anti-coup consensus in the region, while distancing itself from a Honduran president who, most Latin America hands will tell you, carries less than stellar democratic credentials.
But if Obama's nuanced policy looks a bit addled, Congress is downright schizophrenic. Legislators are divided between those who condemn the coup and others who argue that Honduras's self-proclaimed new government, run by the former president of the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti, is constitutional after all.
"This is an issue that has split along partisan lines," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on hemispheric affairs. On the left are those who worry that a coup -- any coup -- is far too dangerous a precedent to condone in a region whose history is rife with them. On the right are those who worry about bringing back into power a man known for his populist rhetoric and alliances with Latin America's most stridently leftist politicians, notably Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "It's reminiscent of the Cold War," Shifter observed.
Reinforcing the idea that a Washington power play is underway, some heavyweight D.C. names are working the issue on Capitol Hill, setting up meetings with House members and senators, taking out advertisements, and helping write congressional testimony for Honduras's business community, who analysts say are standing behind Zelaya's removal -- or, at minimum, working to thwart his reinstatement.
At the top of that list is Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who is now a partner with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. In July, Davis took up the portfolio of the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (known by its Spanish acronym, CEAL). The Cormac Group's Jonathan Slade signed on with the Association of Honduran Manufacturers (Asociación Hondoreña de Maquiladores, or AHM) in June. And Slade in turn hired Ambassador Roger Noriega, a former legislative aide to the late Rep. Jesse Helms and an assistant secretary for Western Hemispheric affairs from 2003 to 2005, to help open doors on the Hill for a week early last month.
With the U.S. Congress split over which side to favor, the crisis in Honduras looks no closer to resolution; Zelaya remains camped on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, talks being mediated by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias seem to have stalled, and no one is sure which way things will turn next. What's clear is that what Washington does next will have an impact.
"It's striking that both sides have looked to Washington for resolution to the crisis," explained Shifter. "I think it's hard to see a resolution without U.S. support."
What (and who) is behind the lobbying has been the topic of immense speculation in Washington in recent weeks, beginning with Davis. His client, CEAL, is the equivalent to Honduras's Chamber of Commerce, representing some of the country's top business interests. And indeed, its president and vice president are "some of the wealthiest and most powerful in the country," according to Kurt Ver Beek, a professor at Michigan's Calvin College who has lived in Honduras for two decades. "It's hard to live here for 20 years and not know of them."
Davis's connections -- notably to the Clintons -- weren't lost on his client, either. CEAL Vice President Jesús Canahuati explained in an interview that Davis is "trying, with his contacts in Washington, to help a peaceful resolution. ... Lanny Davis's group is working toward assisting with their knowledge of Washington."