President Obama's Latin Challenge

Aug 14--Few things have peeved Latin America more than Washington's hypocrisy regarding coups. Overthrowing our friends at gunpoint is bad, the traditional U.S. line seemed to go, but toppling our foes — even the democratically elected ones — is O.K. So it surprised Latin Americans when U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the June 28 military ouster of leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a critic of the U.S., and called for his return to office. "We respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders," Obama said, "whether they are leaders we agree with or not."

Obama got off to a good start in Latin America, engaging leaders and promising a new attitude from Washington. The problem with the shift on coups is that Latin America now expects action to back it up. Honduras is Obama's first hemispheric crisis. There are obviously higher White House priorities right now, and Obama insists he's diligently working for a negotiated solution. But diplomats from Brasília to Mexico City say they fear he's only half-heartedly pressuring Honduras' new government to let Zelaya back in to finish his term, a perception that could squander the trust he's built. That might create problems down the road — for America and the Americas alike. (See pictures of violence during Honduran protests.)

Obama is stuck in the New World's new paradox. Latin America today is less dependent on Washington, and less tolerant of its interventionism, than it has been for decades, thanks to the counterweight of rising star Brazil and the anti-U.S. gospel of Venezuela's oil-rich leftist President, Hugo Chávez. Yet for all that newfound self-reliance, Latin America still looks to the U.S.'s superpower leadership to put the squeeze on rogues like the Honduran coupsters. No other force in the western hemisphere, not Brazil, and certainly not the Organization of American States, wields the requisite economic and diplomatic clout to resolve the standoff.
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