When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup after he attempted to change the country's constitution to allow him to run for re-election, the leftist leader turned in an odd direction for help -- to Washington. Rather than give the American critic a cold shoulder, the Obama administration met with Zelaya in Washington, brokered negotiations aimed at ending the crisis, threatened the coup leaders with a cutoff of U.S. aid, and joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in supporting a United Nations resolution demanding Zelaya's immediate reinstatement.
The contrast with the approach of recent Republican administrations is stark. President Bush stayed quiet but obviously hopeful in the aftermath of an attempted military coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, for instance, appointed anti-Castro stalwart Roger Noriega as his first representative to the Organization of American States, and tightened sanctions against Cuba. Ronald Reagan was so dogged in his opposition to leftist regimes in Latin America during the Cold War that he stumbled into the Iran-Contra controversy, the worst crisis of his presidency.
Which approach is more suited to today's circumstances? The democratic wave that swept through Latin America at the end of the Cold War has subsided, and Chavez leads a pattern of leftist elected leaders who change constitutions to strengthen their power and weaken the opposition. This pattern is now on view in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Does that argue for a return to a harder line against leftist, but elected, governments in Latin America? Or is the Obama administration's outreach and offer of diplomatic engagement a policy more suitable to the times?