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Sen. DeMint travels to Honduras, still blocking Senate vote on Arturo Valenzuela

Hondurass interim President Roberto Micheletti, third from right, poses for pictures with Republican Doug Lamborn of Colorado, left, Republican Peter Roskam of Illinois, second from left, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, third front left, Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois, second front right, and Honduras interim governments Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez in Tegucigalpa, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009.  (AP Photo/ Eduardo Verdugo)

Honduras's interim President Roberto Micheletti, third from right, poses for pictures with Republican Doug Lamborn of Colorado, left, Republican Peter Roskam of Illinois, second from left, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, third front left, Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois, second front right, and Honduras' interim government's Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez in Tegucigalpa, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. (AP Photo/ Eduardo Verdugo)

The Senate vote on President Obama’s choice to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, my Georgetown colleague, Dr. Arturo Valanzuela, continues to be blocked by Senator Jim DeMint because of disagreements with Administration policy over Honduras. As the Associate Press reports, DeMint and several of his fellow Senators have traveled to Honduras to meet with the interim government. The AP explains:

Honduras’ coup-installed president told a U.S. congressional delegation Friday that full civil liberties would be restored within days, a spokesman for one of the lawmakers said following a meeting that challenged Washington’s attempts to isolate the interim government.Interim President Roberto Micheletti said an emergency decree limiting civil liberties, including freedom of the press and assembly, would be lifted no later than Monday, said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

The four Republican lawmakers received the assurances in a private meeting with Micheletti earlier at the presidential palace, said Denton, who spoke to the senator as he was changing planes in Miami aftere the meeting.

“DeMint and the delegation pushed him very hard on that issue … and stressed that it was very important that civil liberties be restored,” the spokesman told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Washington.

The controversial decree shuttered two broadcasters that criticized the June 28 coup that toppled President Manuel Zelaya — although one, Radio Globo, was transmitting over the Internet after police raided its offices and confiscated equipment.

It was imposed Sunday following the return to Honduras of Zelaya, who remains holed up with supporters inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens had urged the interim government Friday to “immediately” reverse the decree, which prohibited gatherings of more than 20 people and allowed arrests without warrants.

“The decree of Sept. 26 damaged civil liberties like nothing else has in a long time here,” Llorens told reporters. “It’s just plain wrong.”

Denton wasn’t certain how Micheletti intended to restore the freedoms and DeMint could not be reached for comment.

The brief, amicable visit with the leaders of the coup highlighted a divide in Washington, where the Obama administration considers the interim government illegitimate and is working to reinstate Zelaya. Many conservatives, however, side with the government installed after soldiers arrested the president in his pajamas and flew him into exile.

DeMint said before the trip that even calling Zelaya’s overthrow a coup is “ill-informed and baseless.”

The lawmakers — the others were Aaron Schock and Peter Roskam of Illinois and Doug Lamborn of Colorado — smiled for photographs in a book-lined office of the stately presidential palace with Micheletti. They slipped out of the palace through a rear entrance, avoiding dozens of journalists waiting for a planned news conference that never materialized.

The delegation met with the major candidates in Nov. 29 elections that many call illegitimate, and with Supreme Court justices. They did not meet with Zelaya.

Nations around the globe have condemned Zelaya’s ouster and many, including the United States and the European Union, have suspended aid to Honduras. Washington has also revoked the U.S. visas of interim leaders.

Republicans argue the actions were a legitimate reaction to Zelaya’s attempt to hold a constitutional referendum that critics believed was an attempt to undo a prohibition on a second term. Zelaya denies that was his intention.

Many conservative American politicians see Micheletti as a bulwark against the expansion of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s socialist programs in Latin America.

It’s not unusual for members of the U.S. Congress to visit shunned governments. Quite a few have visited Cuba in recent years, and both Republicans and Democrats visited Nicaragua when its Sandinista government was at odds with Washington.

But critics argue the visit by Republicans undermines international efforts to restore Zelaya to power just as both sides seem ready to negotiate. Amid mounting concerns about human rights abuses, the interim leaders are under increasing pressure from home and abroad to break the three-month stalemate paralyzing the impoverished country.

“I think that this trip potentially will muddy the waters even more, and that would not be constructive,” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy. “The danger of this visit is that those supporting the Micheletti government re-entrench.”

Six U.S. Democratic lawmakers sent a letter Friday to the president of the Honduran Congress, Jose Angel Saavedra, saying the United States has only one position on the issue — the one President Barack Obama supports.

Micheletti has become increasingly alienated at home after his administration imposed an emergency decree this week suspending some civil liberties, including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. He promised to lift the decree after being criticized by his own supporters as going too far, but has yet to do so.

Differences over Honduras also are affecting Obama: DeMint has been blocking Senate votes on Arturo Valenzuela, Obama’s nominee to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Thomas Shannon, his nominee for U.S. ambassador to Brazil.

“Thanks to DeMint’s intransigence, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can’t hold hearings to receive testimony from the most knowledgeable and relevant witnesses on our policy in Central and South America,” Democratic Sen. John Kerry said in a news release.

Kerry is right. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15 to 4 in support of Dr. Valenzuela. If DeMint is concerned about U.S. policy in Latin America, shouldn’t he allow the Senate to vote on the person that is supposed to spearhead that policy.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.