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A Double Standard on Democracy in Latin America

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 13, 2009

As the Obama administration and a host of Latin American governments campaigned to reverse the coup in Honduras, another democratically elected Latin leader embarked on a lonely effort to draw attention to the double standard that has lately governed violations of political and human rights in the region.

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Venezuelan Antonio Ledezma is no gadfly or dissident; as the mayor of Caracas, he received almost as many votes in last November's election (700,000) as Manuel Zelaya (915,000) did when he won the presidency of Honduras in 2005. Yet while the Organization of American States has been united in demanding Zelaya's return to his post, and in suspending Honduras for violating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, it has studiously ignored the case of Ledezma -- who, since his election, has been illegally driven from his office by a mob, stripped of most of his powers and budget, and subjected to criminal investigation by the regime of Hugo Chávez.

So on July 3, as OAS ministers were gathering in Washington to act on Honduras, Ledezma launched a hunger strike in the OAS offices in Caracas. His aims were pretty straightforward: to force Chávez to turn over funds needed to pay thousands of municipal employees and to compel OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to investigate Chávez's massive violations of the democracy charter.

Insulza, a Chilean socialist who is counting on Chávez's support to win a second term in office, embodies the double standard. He has been theatrical -- and ineffectual -- in his attempts to manage the Honduran crisis; a week ago he joined a foolish, Chávez-sponsored attempt to force Zelaya's return to the country. Undertaken against the advice of every government in the Americas, save those allied with Chávez, the airborne caper produced violent clashes at the Tegucigalpa airport and led to the sidelining of Insulza's diplomacy in favor of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias's.

While championing Zelaya -- whose attempt to illegally rewrite the constitution united Honduras's Congress and Supreme Court against him -- Insulza refused to interest himself in the case of Ledezma and other elected Venezuelan mayors and state governors who have been subjected to power-stripping and criminal prosecution by Chávez. The OAS "cannot be involved in issues of internal order of member states," said a statement Insulza issued after a June meeting in Washington with Ledezma -- a declaration he quickly contradicted once the pro-Chávez Zelaya was deposed.

Ledezma's hunger strike eventually shamed Insulza into making a phone call in which he promised to meet with the Venezuelan mayors and governors in Washington, and to investigate their charges that Chávez had violated the democracy charter. But Insulza later repeated that "it is very difficult to determine how a country should organize itself internally."

Such willful disregard of political repression was the prevailing policy among OAS members before the Honduran coup -- including the Obama administration. Though Chávez launched his latest and most virulent campaign against elected opposition leaders and independent media shortly after Obama's inauguration, the administration for months refused to publicly respond; instead, it agreed on a new exchange on ambassadors with Venezuela and repeatedly announced its hope to "work with" the caudillo.

Last week it finally began to look as though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration had changed their approach. Immediately after meeting with Zelaya, Clinton granted an interview to the Venezuelan television network Globovision, which Chávez has vowed to shut down because of its critical reporting. In it she reiterated the administration's desire to "lower the temperature" with Chávez but spoke out against persecution of the media and "the arbitrary use and abuse of power that would lead to political prisoners being confined." Globovision's owner is one of the numerous opposition leaders now under criminal investigation.

In testimony to Congress the next day, the State Department's incoming assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela, said that following the Honduras crisis, "it should be clear that the collective response of the hemisphere in support of democracy should not be limited to taking action simply when elected leaders are removed from office by force." Does that mean the United States now will also push Insulza and the OAS to judge what is happening in Venezuela -- and in Nicaragua, Ecuador and other states where freedom of the press and free elections have been under sustained attack? The administration's high-profile effort to defend a hostile Honduran president has provided an opportunity to take the offensive against the hemisphere's most dangerous anti-democratic actors.


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