Democracy Derailed in Honduras

When Honduran president Manuel Zelaya--who was rousted out of his bed
on Sunday morning by a detachment of armed soldiers and forced into
exile still in his pajamas--took office in early 2006, unionists,
peasant activists and reformers expected little of the center-right
politician, a rancher and member of the establishment Liberal Party.
Neither did the handful of elite Honduran families who, bankrolled by
foreign finance, control their country's media, banking, agricultural,
manufacturing and narcotics industries. "You are only temporary, while
we are permanent," they told him soon after his inauguration, according
one report, reminding Zelaya that he served at their

But the realities of governing in a country as poor as Honduras--more
than 60 percent of its population live in poverty, more than 50
percent in extreme poverty--tends to reinforce a left-wing slant.
Perhaps it was the imperious and imperial behavior of George W. Bush's
ambassador to Honduras, described by Zelaya as "barbarous."
Or maybe it was the fact that the Central
Free Trade Agreement, rather than delivering promised development,
worsened his country's trade deficit with the United States while
low wages even lower, as Honduras competed with its equally
neighbors for investment. Or perhaps it was the US Food and Drug
Administration's unilateral ban of Honduran cantaloupes because they
were supposedly tainted with salmonella, though the FDA offered no
of the charge, a move Zelaya called "unjust."

Whatever the reason, Zelaya shifted course, and over the
past two years he has adopted a progressive agenda. As a solution to the
disastrous "war on drugs," which has turned Central America into a
well-traversed trans-shipment corridor for
narcotraficantes--profitable for some, deadly for many--he has
proposed the legalization of some narcotics. Earlier this year at the
Summit of the Americas, he took the lead in pushing Barack Obama to
normalize relations with Cuba. And he has steered his country into both
the Bolivarian Alternative to the
Americas and Petrocaribe, two regional economic alliances backed by
Venezuela meant to wean Latin America off its extreme dependence on the
US market.

This left turn is less ideological than pragmatic. Honduras
is so broke it "can't even build a road without getting a loan from the
World Bank," Zelaya once complained. But that money comes in "dribbles,
held up years by paperwork
" and often accompanied by onerous
terms. In contrast, he said, Petrocaribe financing for
infrastructure investment came all at once, at extremely low interest,
with no conditions, which helped free up other scarce funds for social
services. Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela also provides Honduras with 20,000
barrels of crude oil per day, also on very generous terms.

For those who presume to rule behind the scenes, Zelaya took a step
far when he began to push for the convocation of a constituent assembly
in order to democratize Honduras's notoriously exclusionary political
system. Expectedly, these efforts were opposed by the national Congress
and the Supreme Court, both of which are controlled by an inbred clique
of career politicians and judges invested in keeping Honduran politics
restricted--including members of Zelaya's Liberal Party. For its part,
the US media seem intent on reporting on events in Honduras through the
prism of its obsession with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The New York Times, for instance, ran an op-ed
by free-market ideologue Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who claimed that the most
unfortunate aspect of the coup is not that it derailed Honduran
democracy but--wait for it--that it has allowed Chavez to defend
democracy and thus claim the "moral high ground." Vargas Llosa
describes Zelaya as a man of privilege, an "heir to the family fortune"
who had "devoted decades to his agriculture and forestry enterprises"
and who had run for president on a conservative platform that included
supporting CAFTA. Misleadingly, Vargas Llosa attributes Zelaya's
political turn not to the absolute failure of CAFTA and the
fiasco of the "war on drugs" but to Chavez's seductions.
The US media have also falsely yet unanimously presented Zelaya's moves
as a power grab, an effort to end term limits to allow him to run for
re-election. But the referendum Zelaya was pushing--which prompted the
coup--asked citizens only if there should be a vote on "whether to hold
a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political
" In other words, Hondurans weren't being asked to
vote on term limits or even on revising the Constitution. They were
simply being asked to vote on whether or not to have a vote on revising
the Constitution, with the terms of that revision being left to an
elected assembly.

Latin America has demonstrated a remarkable degree of unanimity in
condemning the coup and demanding Zelaya's return to power. "We cannot
accept or recognize any new government other than President Zelaya,"
said Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The Organization of American
States has stated that it will refuse to make any
concessions to the coup plotters and that it will be open only to
dialogue that would facilitate the "return of President Zelaya to his
legitimate position." Other Central American nations have recalled
their ambassadors from Honduras and have taken steps to isolate the
country until democracy is restored.

Barack Obama, too, has issued strong words against Zelaya's
overthrow: "I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving
backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means
of political transition, rather than democratic elections," he said.
"The region has made enormous progress over the past twenty years in
establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America.
We don't want to go back to a dark past."

The State Department, though, has been more circumspect. At first it
was reluctant to use the word "coup" to describe Zelaya's overthrow,
since to do so would trigger automatic sanctions, including the
suspension of foreign aid and the withdrawal of US troops. Honduras
hosts Soto Cano Air Force Base, the main US military base in the
region, and Washington is concerned with keeping that installation
fully operational. Likewise, according to John Negroponte--who as
ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s was implicated in the cover-up of
hundreds of death-squad executions--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
is working to "preserve
some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on
a referendum" and presumably from his other populist policies.

It seems like what the United States might be angling for in
Honduras could be the "Haiti Option." In 1994 Bill Clinton worked to
restore Haitian
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was deposed in a coup, but
only on the condition that Aristide would support IMF and World Bank
policies. The result was a disaster, leading to deepening poverty,
escalating polarization and, in 2004, a second coup against
Aristide, this one fully backed by the Bush White House.

Though there is no indication that the United States is considering
using military force to restore Zelaya--as Clinton did for Aristide in
1994--Washington should follow the lead of the rest of the Americas and
resist the temptation to attach conditions to its support for his return
to office. Last week, during a meeting with Chilean President Michelle
Bachelet, a reporter asked Obama if he would apologize for America's role
in the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power (and led to the
torture of Bachelet and her father, who died as a result). Obama
and said that he was "interested in going
forward, not looking backward."

As Honduras teeters on the brink--as of this writing, the new regime
has cracked down on the media and instituted a curfew, with reports of
escalating repression by security forces against Zelaya supporters--one
way to move forward would be to provide unconditional support for Zelaya's
immediate return.

"This is a golden opportunity," Costa Rica's former vice president,
Kevin Casas-Zamora, said
, for Obama "to make a clear break with the past and show
that he is unequivocally siding with democracy, even if [some in Washington] don't necessarily like the guy."

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