Senator Jim DeMint has placed a “hold” on President Barack Obama’s nominee for the top U.S. diplomatic post for Latin America over dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the political crisis in Honduras.
In a letter dated today, the South Carolina Republican asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to put the hold on the nomination of Arturo Valenzuela as the next State Department official in charge of Western Hemisphere affairs. DeMint also asked Kerry to temporarily block the nomination of Thomas Shannon, who currently occupies that post, as ambassador to Brazil.
A copy of the letter was obtained by Bloomberg News.
Obama “rushed to side” with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in calling the June 28 overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya a coup “before getting the facts,” DeMint said in an e-mailed statement. “Now it’s clear that the people of Honduras were defending the rule of law.”
DeMint was among 17 Republican lawmakers who complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her refusal to meet in Washington with representatives of the interim government named by Honduras’s congress after Zelaya was ousted by the military at gunpoint.
Valenzuela defended the White House’s decision to condemn the overthrow as a coup and suspend aid to Honduras, Central America’s third poorest, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on his nomination.
“In my studies of military coups in Latin America, this was a classic military coup,” he said at the July 9 hearing.
When pressed by DeMint about whether Honduras’s military acted to defend the constitution against abuses by Zelaya, Valenzuela said “I don’t want to get into some of the details of this. I’m not familiar myself with all of the details.”
DeMint said Valenzuela’s responses were unsatisfactory. “Mr. Valenzuela told me he didn’t even know the facts in Honduras,” DeMint said in the statement today. “Yet, everyday Zelaya’s own statements reveal his true desire to be a Chavez- style dictator advocating violence in order to return to power.”
DeMint also that Shannon, in his State Department post, “has still failed to show a clear understanding of Honduras’s fight to defend democracy.”
Zelaya said July 19 that his supporters were organizing an “insurrection” to return to power, as negotiations mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias stalled.
Chavez has said there were no grounds for talks and lent Zelaya a Venezuelan government-owned jet on which he tried to return to the airport in Tegucigalpa on July 5.
Honduras’s institutions and business groups remain united in support of Zelaya’s overthrow. The Supreme Court ruled that Zelaya violated the constitution by trying to hold an illegal poll on whether people support his proposal to change the constitution. The court issued a sealed arrest order for the president on June 26, two days before his overthrow.
Zelaya also ignored a court order that said he couldn’t fire the head of the military for refusing to oversee the survey, and stormed a military base with a mob of civilians to “liberate” the ballots.
Eric Farnsworth, the Washington-based vice president of the Council of the Americas, said the Senate may delay action on the nominations until after its monthlong summer recess, which begins August 7.
“It’s an open question what DeMint really wants,” he said in a telephone interview. “If the goal is to change the course of policy on Honduras,” the battle over the nominations “could be extended.”
The Chilean-born Valenzuela is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. He previously served President Bill Clinton as the White House’s top national security adviser on Latin America.
In the letter DeMint and 16 other Republican senators sent to Clinton, they complained about her refusal to meet with envoys of acting Honduran President Roberto Micheletti earlier this month in Washington.
“Given the turbulent history of Latin America, we can understand, but disagree with, the rush to label the events of June 28th a coup d’etat,” the senators wrote in the July 8 letter to Clinton. “While you have already met with Mr. Zelaya, we find it discouraging that you are unwilling to meet with Honduran officials that have simply followed their constitution.”
**To contact the reporter on this story: Joshua Goodman in Rio de Janeiro email@example.com