Restoring Democracy in Honduras

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE ARREST and deportation of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the country's military on Sunday was wrong and should be reversed. Quite possibly, it will be: Facing the united condemnation of governments in the Americas, and under heavy pressure from the United States -- on which Honduras depends for aid, free trade and remittances from workers -- the politicians and generals who deposed Mr. Zelaya may not hold out for long. If their goal is, as they declare, to defend the country's democracy, they will have a better chance of doing so if they allow the president to return and at least temporarily resume his post.

The Obama administration, however, shouldn't limit itself to reversing the military's foolish intervention. The crisis in Honduras offers an opportunity to address the more substantial and more serious threat to democracy in the region -- a threat represented, in part, by Mr. Zelaya himself.

Though it might look similar, this was not a 1960s-style Latin American coup in which an authoritarian military toppled popular democrats. Until Sunday, it was Mr. Zelaya who was attempting to undermine democratic institutions, including Congress and the Supreme Court. Elected in 2005 on a right-of-center platform, the Honduran president had lately fallen under the spell of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In an attempt to follow Mr. Chávez's example, he was trying to summon an assembly to rewrite the constitution and overcome the term limits that would have forced him to leave office at the end of this year.

Congress opposed his attempt to hold a referendum, and the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Yet Mr. Zelaya persisted, trying -- reportedly with Mr. Chávez's material support -- to organize an unofficial poll. When the army commander in chief refused to assist in this effort, the president fired him; the Supreme Court found that unconstitutional as well.

The military's intervention may have the unintended effect of saving Mr. Zelaya. The Congress voted him out of office on Sunday by a large margin; had the generals merely allowed events to proceed according to the rule of law, the president could have been legitimately deposed or isolated. The fear of further intervention by Mr. Chávez may have prompted the rash action; the Venezuelan strongman has made it quite clear that he is eager to meddle in the country's affairs, and he has even threatened military action.

That's one reason the Obama administration should not limit itself to seeking Mr. Zelaya's return to office. It should also speak out more clearly about the abuses that prompted his removal -- abuses that are taking place in other Latin American countries, such as neighboring Nicaragua -- and the people who are actively fomenting the attacks on democracy, such as Mr. Chávez. It's easy enough to join Chile and Brazil in condemning the Honduran military at the Organization of American States. What requires political courage -- and U.S. leadership -- is confronting the forces that brought Honduras to this breaking point.

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