Are Republicans Breaking US Law in Honduras?

As if the right needed to add to its anti-democratic pedigree, Republican leaders have flocked to Tegucigalpa to bolster the junta in Honduras.

Nine Congressional Republicans – including seven in the past week as the crisis heats up — have now met with Roberto Micheletti, who took power after a military coup June 28.

This is a coup that has been denounced by everyone from the Organization of American States to the United Nations, which passed a resolution calling “categorically on all states to recognise no government other than that” of the elected president, Manuel Zelaya. No state has recognized Micheletti as president.

But U.S. Republicans have.

“He is the president of Honduras,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Monday. “Some people tell me ‘de facto’ government, but under the Constitution of the Republic I am seated here with the president of this country and it’s a great honor.”

Leading us further down the rabbit hole is South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a member of the Foreign Relations committee, who visited Micheletti and his backers Oct. 2: “We saw a government working hard to follow the rule of law, uphold its constitution, and to protect democracy for the people of Honduras.”

Consistent with every other country, from Venezuela on the left to Colombia on the right, U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy has been to not recognize or meet with Micheletti.

Since contact with Micheletti is in direct conflict with stated U.S. interests, these nine Republicans, as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has aided them, seem to have broken U.S. law. The Logan Act says that anyone who without government authorization “directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

Tomas Ayuso, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric affairs who spent the summer reporting on the crisis from Tegucigalpa, agrees. The members of Congress meeting with Micheletti “are in violation of the Logan Act,” he said.

There have been three Republican trips to Honduras to meet with Micheletti: a July trip by House members Connie Mack (R-Florida) and Brian Bilbray (R-California); last week’s trip by Senators Jim DeMint (R- South Carolina), Aaron Schock (R-Illinois), Peter Roskam (R-Illinois), and Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado); and Monday’s visit by House members Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida).

Though ignorance of the law is no defense, could it be that our representatives didn’t know about Obama’s policy of not meeting with Micheletti? No.

Mack’s report from his trip, for example, reads: “After ending the luncheon, the Ambassador re-emphasized the Obama Administration’s policy of no contact with Honduran President Micheletti. Congressman Mack nonetheless demanded that all sides should have their arguments heard, and therefore insisted on the meeting.”

How is that not a violation of the Logan Act?

Incidentally, Mack has called the Organization of American States “dangerous” for supporting Zelaya – an elected leader – and not Micheletti – a coup leader. By that logic, he finds every country in the world dangerous.

That Republicans would wage battle against democracy comes as no surprise. But how Democrats let them get away with sabotaging the stated interests of the United States is another matter.

Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, tried to stop DeMint’s trip to Honduras, but when DeMint appealed to McConnell, he wound up riding to Honduras in a Pentagon airplane. How could Obama not have known that his own Defense Department was thwarting him? Why hasn’t the airplane matter been investigated?

Obama has been disturbingly blasé about the coup, perhaps because Zelaya had become a critic of the United States in the vein of Chavez. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even called Zelaya’s attempted return “reckless.” But Obama now has begun rescinding visas for backers of Micheletti, and he has cut off $30 million in aid to Honduras.

These moves come more than two months after the coup, and Obama’s hesitation has only girded Micheletti’s will. “[U.S. officials] are doing these piecemeal steps to see how the de facto regime responds,” said Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “And each time the de facto regime remains intransigent, they up the ante, but it takes them way too long.”

Opponents ousted democratically elected Manuel Zelaya for trying to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. They accuse him of wanting to get rid of the single-term limit, a charge he denies. In a pre-dawn raid, the military seized a pajama-clad Zelaya and sent him to Costa Rica. He snuck back into the country Sept. 21 and has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy, surrounded by Micheletti’s soldiers.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from arguing that the United States should support a putsch that even one of its leaders has admitted is illegal.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, the Honduran military’s chief lawyer, Colonel Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, acknowledged that it was an illegal military-led coup: “In the moment that we took him out of the country, in the way that he was taken out, there was a crime.”

Inestroza justified the move by saying that merely imprisoning Zelaya would have led to bloodshed, because his supporters would have demonstrated for his release. “We know there was a crime there,” he said. “[But] what was more beneficial, remove this gentleman from Honduras or present him to prosecutors and have a mob assault and burn and destroy and for us to have to shoot? If we had left him here, right now we would be burying a pile of people.”

As for the raft of U.S. Republicans backing the coup (and refusing to call it a coup), their fear is something else: socialism.

“This is about trying to stymie the Obama administration’s efforts in Latin America and the Republicans’ obsession with Hugo Chavez and their concern about his expanding influence in the region,” Dan Erikson, a senior associate at the nonpartisan Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, told the Associated Press.

Whether or not the Republican trips are found to be illegal, they are surely helping Micheletti dig in his heels. The toxic soup is likely to boil over after the Nov. 29 election, whose results the United States and other countries have said they will not recognize because of the coup and crackdown on civil liberties.

Meanwhile Republicans blow on for freedom, somehow keeping their faces straight. “The way out of this problem is to respect the free and fair elections that the people of Honduras are going to have,” said Ros-Lehtinen, whose sterling right-wing creds include cheerleading the U.S. invasion of Iraq and telling Israel after it bombed Syria: “We are a better world because you did that.”

“I will tell my colleagues (U.S. Congressmen) to come to Honduras, not to see the newspapers, CNN or any media, to come here to meet with the legitimate government to listen their aspiration of living in peace and democracy,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

This aspiration apparently includes shutting down two media outlets, banning freedom of assembly, and arresting over a thousand protesters. The crackdown has killed eleven people, according to the Committee for Families of the Disappeared and Detainees in Honduras, or Cofadeh. On Sept. 30, Micheletti rounded up the 55 farmers who had occupied the National Agrarian Institute to protest the coup, and a judge ordered 38 of them to be held on charges of sedition.

Joining Ros-Lehtinen in her Oct. 5 visit was Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his younger brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. All three are Cuban exiles long driven by opposition to Fidel Castro. The Diaz-Balarts are sons of Rafael Diaz-Balart, minister of the interior under the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, overthrown by another coup leader, Castro, in 1959.

The anti-democratic instincts of the right are not limited to politicians with such a personal kite in the sky.

The Wall Street Journal gave a platform to Micheletti on its op-ed page, on which amid all the rationalizations for the coup, he writes, “Regarding the decision to expel Mr. Zelaya from the country the evening of June 28 without a trial, reasonable people can believe the situation could have been handled differently.” And here’s how the fair-and-balanced Journal editors sugarcoat Micheletti: “Mr. Micheletti, previously the president of the Honduran Congress, became president of Honduras upon the departure of Manuel Zelaya. He is a member of the Liberal Party, the same party as Mr. Zelaya.”

Departure? The only departure here is from the world of reason, in which we can call a military seizure of a president a coup and not an act of freedom, and see it as something that needs to be resisted by other governments before there’s a lot more blood spilled.

BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: