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The White Houseâ€™s Latin Connection
Is Greg Craig driving U.S. Latin America policy?
Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned to his country on Friday, traveling by SUV from Nicaragua to a small border town. It was his first time back in Honduras since he was arrested and deported on June 28 for violating the constitution.
Mr. Zelaya appeared somewhat disappointed that his theatrical re-entry did not provoke a shoot-out. A few hours later he jumped back into Nicaragua where Sandinista President Daniel Ortega has given him shelter.
If Mr. Zelaya keeps this up, the crisis could drag on. But however the standoff is resolved, it is likely to be remembered as a defining moment for U.S. Latin America policy under Barack Obama.
Mr. Zelaya had means, motive and opportunity to destroy the countryâ€™s democratic institutions and was moving to do so. If he succeeded, he could have consolidated power in the manner of Venezuelaâ€™s Hugo ChĂˇvez and turned the country into a police state. Mr. Obamaâ€™s insistence that Mr. Zelaya be restored to power has strengthened the image of an arrogant and patronizing Uncle Sam disconnected from the regionâ€™s reality.
Hondurans might be more amenable to an Obama democracy lecture if the U.S. showed any interest in standing up to Mr. ChĂˇvez and his antidemocratic allies or any grasp of the dangers they present. Instead, since taking office in January the American president has embraced the regionâ€™s bad actors only to be subsequently embarrassed by revelations that his new â€śfriendsâ€ť are actually enemies of liberty and peace.
The weirdness started with the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, when Mr. Obama practically high-fived Mr. ChĂˇvez like they were long lost soul mates. The administrationâ€™s spin was that tension in the region was caused by George W. Bush. The charming Mr. Obama would change all that, and from there U.S. influence would rise again. Mr. ChĂˇvez didnâ€™t get the memo. On July 19, the Washington Post reported that a new Government Accountability Office report finds â€śthat corruption at high levels of President Hugo Chavezâ€™s government, and state aid to Colombiaâ€™s drug-trafficking guerrillas, have made Venezuela a major launching pad for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe.â€ť Now Mr. ChĂˇvez says he will overthrow the Honduran government.
Mr. Obama called Ecuadorâ€™s Rafael Correa in early June to â€ścongratulateâ€ť him on his recent re-election, and according to a White House spokesman, â€śexpress his desire to deepen our bilateral relationship and to maintain an ongoing dialogue that can ensure a productive relationship based on mutual respect.â€ť This made Mr. Obama look uninformed again since Mr. Correaâ€™s disrespect for U.S. interests is legendary.
On June 22, I reported in this column that Colombian military intelligence had evidence the Correa government is a supporter of the Colombian rebel group FARC. A furious Mr. Correa jumped in front of television cameras to issue a threat to sue The Wall Street Journal. â€śWe are fed up with their lies,â€ť he warned.
Get the latest information in Spanish from The Wall Street Journalâ€™s Americas page.
He couldnâ€™t know that the Associated Press would release a video days later of a rebel reading a letter from the FARCâ€™s deceased leader about â€ścompromisingâ€ť documents that talk of the FARCâ€™s financial support for Mr. Correaâ€™s 2006 presidential campaign and â€śagreementsâ€ť with Correa envoys. Reporting on the news, the Spanish daily El Pais wrote that â€śvarious emails from the computers of [FARC honcho] RaĂşl Reyes tell about the delivery of $100,000 to the Correa campaign team. What is new is that a high-ranking leader of the guerrillas verbally acknowledges the contribution.â€ť Mr. Correa denies FARC connections and says it is a â€śsetup.â€ť No word yet on whether he plans to sue all the other newspapers that subsequently reported the story.
Having established that making nice with the regionâ€™s troublemakers is a priority, Mr. Obama now wants Mr. Zelayaâ€”who was endorsed by the FARC last weekâ€”reinstated. If Honduras does not comply, the U.S. is threatening to freeze assets and revoke the visas of interim government officials.
Some Washington watchers figure this bizarre stance is due to the fact that Mr. Obama is relying heavily on White House Counsel Gregory Craig for advice on Latin America.
Mr. Craig was the lawyer for Fidel Castroâ€”er, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father of Elian Gonzalezâ€”during Bill Clintonâ€™s 2000 repatriation to Cuba of the seven-year-old. During the presidential campaign when Mr. Craig was advising Mr. Obama, the far-left Council on Hemispheric Affairs endorsed Mr. Craig as â€śthe right man to revive deeply flawed U.S.-Latin America relations.â€ť In other words, to pull policy left.
There is plenty of speculation that Mr. Obama is making policy off of Mr. Craigâ€™s â€śexpertise.â€ť It is not too much to believe. Indeed, if all policy is now being run out of the White House, as many observers contend, then the views of the White House counsel may explain a lot.