October 8, 2009
Leader Ousted, Honduras Hires U.S. Lobbyists
By GINGER THOMPSON and RON NIXON
WASHINGTON — First, depose a president. Second, hire a lobbyist.
In the months since soldiers ousted the Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, the de facto government and its supporters have resisted demands from the United States that he be restored to power. Arguing that the left-leaning Mr. Zelaya posed a threat to their country’s fragile democracy by trying to extend his time in office illegally, they have made their case in Washington in the customary way: by starting a high-profile lobbying campaign.
The campaign has had the effect of forcing the administration to send mixed signals about its position to the de facto government, which reads them as signs of encouragement. It also has delayed two key State Department appointments in the region.
Costing at least $400,000 so far, according to lobbying registration records, the campaign has involved law firms and public relations agencies with close ties to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain, a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs.
It has also drawn support from several former high-ranking officials who were responsible for setting United States policy in Central America in the 1980s and ’90s, when the region was struggling to break with the military dictatorships and guerrilla insurgencies that defined the cold war. Two decades later, those former officials — including Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and Daniel W. Fisk — view Honduras as the principal battleground in a proxy fight with Cuba and Venezuela, which they characterize as threats to stability in the region in language similar to that once used to describe the designs of the Soviet Union.
“The current battle for political control of Honduras is not only about that small nation,” Mr. Reich testified in July before Congress. “What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chávez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the spread of Chavista authoritarianism,” he said, referring to the Venezuelan president.
Mr. Noriega, who was a co-author of the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the United States embargo against Cuba, and who has recently served as a lobbyist for a Honduran business group, declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Reich, who served in key Latin America posts for President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush, said he had not lobbied officially for any Honduran group. But he said he had used his connections to push the agenda of the de facto government, led by Roberto Micheletti, because he believed that the Obama administration had made a mistake.
And Mr. Fisk, whose political career has included stints on the National Security Council and as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under Mr. Bush, had been promoting the Micheletti government’s case until two weeks ago as an aide to retired Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.
In addition to the support of such cold war veterans — and partly because of it — the de facto government has mobilized the support of a determined group of Republican legislators, led by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. They are holding up two State Department appointments as a way of pressing the Obama administration to lift sanctions against the country.
“We have made a wrong call here,” Mr. DeMint said in an interview with Fox News after returning from a trip to Honduras last Friday. Referring to the de facto government, he said, “This is probably our best friend in the hemisphere, the most pro-American country, but we are trying to strangle them.”
Chris Sabatini, editor of Americas Quarterly, a policy journal focusing on Latin America, said the lobbying had muddled Washington’s position on the coup. The administration has said publicly that it sees the coup in Honduras as a dangerous development in a region that not too long ago was plagued by them, he said.
But, he added, to placate its opponents in Congress, and have its nominations approved, the State Department has sometimes sent back-channel messages to legislators expressing its support for Mr. Zelaya in more equivocal terms.
“There’s been a leadership vacuum on Honduras in the administration, and these are the people who’ve filled it,” he said of the Micheletti government’s backers. “They haven’t gotten a lot of support, but enough to hold the administration’s policy hostage for now.”
After the June 28 coup, President Obama joined the region in condemning the action and calling for President Zelaya to be returned to power, even though the Honduran president is an ally of Mr. Chávez, America’s biggest adversary in the region.
But Congressional aides said that less than 10 days after Mr. Zelaya was ousted, Mr. Noriega and Lanny J. Davis, a confidant of Mrs. Clinton and a lobbyist for a Honduran business council, organized a meeting for supporters of the de facto government with members of the Senate.
Mr. Fisk, who attended the meeting, said he was stunned by the turnout. “I had never seen eight senators in one room to talk about Latin America in my entire career,” he said.
As President Obama imposed increasingly tougher sanctions on Honduras, the lobbying intensified. The Cormac Group, run by a former aide to Senator McCain, John Timmons, signed on, records show, as did Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, a public relations firm.
For his part, Mr. Reich sent his thoughts to members of Congress by e-mail. “We should rejoice,” he wrote to one member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “that one of the self-proclaimed 21st Century socialist allies of Chávez has been legally deposed by his own countrymen.”
As is often the nature of lobbying, some messages have been sent without any names attached. Floating around Senate offices in the last few weeks, for example, was a list of talking points aimed at undermining the nomination of Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. Two Congressional aides, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about matters related to the coup, said that Mr. Fisk wrote the talking points.
Mr. Fisk denied having done so. He also dismissed the notion that he was operating from an old playbook. “Someone else may be fighting over the ’80s,” he said. “I’m not.”
Barclay Walsh contributed research.