For U.S. and OAS, New Challenges to Latin American Democracy

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

The Obama administration has signaled its support for democracy in Latin America by condemning the coup in Honduras, reducing military cooperation and joining with other countries in the hemisphere yesterday in a rare suspension of a nation from the Organization of American States.

But bayonet-wielding soldiers are not the biggest threat to democracy in the region, where more than a dozen presidents have been removed prematurely since 1990. In recent years, a crop of elected, authoritarian-minded leaders has packed courts with supporters, held dubious elections and curtailed press freedoms. Legislatures have also pushed the boundaries of democratic order, giving legal cover to "civilian coups" in which protest groups have forced the ouster of presidents.

"The threats against democracy in Latin America, and I don't in any way minimize what's happened in Honduras . . . are not those coming from military coups, but rather from governments which are ignoring checks and balances, overriding other elements of government," said Jeffrey Davidow, a retired U.S. ambassador who served as President Obama's special adviser for the recent Summit of the Americas.

But it has been difficult for the U.S. government and regional bodies to respond to constitutional crises that fall short of a coup. Although the OAS has launched a determined effort to reinstate Manuel Zelaya as Honduran president, it has reacted more mildly to other irregular changes of power and to abuses by presidents and congresses.

Zelaya set out in a plane for Honduras yesterday, ignoring warnings from U.S. diplomats and representatives of many Latin American countries that his arrival could provoke a clash. The Honduran government declared it would not let him land, and his plane instead went on Nicaragua. Zelaya is likely to return to Washington soon to discuss further efforts to end the standoff, U.S. officials said.

The Honduran crisis began as a clash among institutions. Zelaya defied his country's Supreme Court by proceeding with a non-binding poll on writing a new constitution that many believed would scrap term limits, allowing him to seek a second term next year.

The coup that removed him brought back ugly memories of the 1960s and 1970s, when Latin American generals seized power and ruthlessly repressed opponents. But events in Honduras reflected how that old model has changed: The military quickly recognized a new civilian president sworn in by the country's Congress. Honduran lawmakers overwhelmingly voted June 28 to remove Zelaya after he was bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica.

Jennifer McCoy, head of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, said the international community has rarely insisted on the reinstatement of a toppled president in Latin America in recent years, with the United States and other countries generally calling for new elections or other constitutional mechanisms.

This time, though, the sight of soldiers hauling off a pajama-clad president was too much. The Obama administration joined the chorus of condemnation, despite its frustrations with Zelaya, who belongs to a group of vociferously anti-American leaders allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The strong reaction to the coup might "put to rest the temptation to resort to the military, once and for all," McCoy said. "But we're now in a different context of democratic frameworks in Latin America. It doesn't mean a crisis won't arise. It's just the nature of the crises are different. And we haven't figured out how to deal with them."

The Obama administration's reaction reflects lessons learned in a 2002 coup against Chávez. The Bush administration was widely seen as tacitly welcoming that maneuver. But the coup collapsed within two days, and U.S. proclamations of support for democracy in the hemisphere suddenly rang hollow.

"We were on the wrong side. We paid for it in a host of ways, both bilaterally, in the region, but also in the OAS," said Peter Romero, a former assistant secretary of state in charge of Latin America.

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