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Given the urgent problems that confront the United States - a troubled economy, the war in Afghanistan, a health care crisis and political upheaval in many nations vital to U.S. interests abroad - it would be easy for the Obama administration to concentrate on the big issues to the exclusion of matters that appear less pressing. To do so, however, is not always the wisest policy. The current situation in Honduras is a case in point.

Events there hardly rise to the crisis level. Still, the rise of violence, drug cartels and unstable government, in Honduras and its neighbors, merit attention before they worsen.

The return of former President Manuel Zelaya to his homeland last week after nearly two years in exile provides an opportunity - if the administration will take it - to reiterate the U.S. commitment to free government in hemispheric nations. That's been a bedrock of U.S. diplomacy for years, and a highly public reminder of that fact would be welcome.

Zelaya's return could be a turning point for Honduras. The desperately poor nation is ruled by a repressive government that, following Zelaya's ouster, allowed violent Mexican drug cartels to operate within its borders. The country's rulers have maintained power by intimidation - targeting political activists, journalists and human rights advocates. Consequently, the nation now has become one of the world's most violent countries, according to the United Nations Development Program. Zelaya's return, brokered by Colombia and Venezuela, suggests the extent of the danger that lurks in Honduras.

Indeed, the return of the former president last week prompted the Organization of American States to reinstate Honduras to membership on Wednesday. It was revoked, quite understandably, after Zelaya's ouster. The same event prompted the United States to cut off aid. Restoration of aid, if it is tied to demands for fair government and an end to violence, could serve as a catalyst for positive change in the Central American nation.

A renewal of U.S. diplomatic and economic engagement with Honduras is unlikely to restore democratic institutions there in the near term. It would help in the long term. It would reassure those who are working peacefully to bring change to the country that they have a powerful ally in their continuing quest to restore elected government, to end oppression and violence, and to renew respect for human rights.

That effort is worthy of diplomatic attention and financial support from the Obama administration. Honduras' woes are part of a pattern that has destabilized Guatemala and El Salvador, as well. Efforts to reverse conditions in Honduras also could help its neighbors turn around. The U.S. may have to expend the bulk of its diplomatic energy on visible problems, but conditions like those that now fester in Central American are ignored at our peril.

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