Honduras breakthrough is win for democracy

Saturday, October 31, 2009

THE STAKES in Honduras's political crisis have always been bigger than the country's tiny size would suggest -- and so it follows that the breakthrough engineered this week by the Obama administration is more than a minor diplomatic triumph.

At its root, the fight in Honduras has been over whether Latin American nations will remain committed to upholding liberal democracy and the rule of law, not only at home but for their neighbors. The alliance led by Hugo Chávez is promoting a rival model of populist authoritarianism -- one that Honduras's deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, was attempting to adopt. When the Honduran army arrested Mr. Zelaya in June and illegally deported him, it, too, violated democratic norms, thus providing Mr. Chávez and his client with a convenient means to rally support.

Not just Venezuela's satellites but every other member of the Organization of American States joined in censuring Honduras. The subsequent intransigence of the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti -- and the unthinking support it received from some Republicans in Congress -- only added fuel to Mr. Chávez's fire.

The beauty of the U.S.-brokered deal is that it is founded on democratic process -- the very thing the Chavistas want to destroy. The Honduran Congress will vote on whether to restore Mr. Zelaya to office for the three months remaining in his term. Mr. Zelaya says he has the votes to return as president, but if he does, he will head a "government of reconciliation," and the armed forces will report to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a presidential election previously scheduled for Nov. 29 will go forward with international support and regional recognition for the winner. Neither of the two leading presidential candidates supports Mr. Zelaya or his agenda, which means that Honduras's democracy should be preserved, and Mr. Chávez's attempted coup rebuffed.

Continued U.S. involvement will be needed to ensure that the deal is implemented. If it succeeds, the Obama administration will have the standing -- and the obligation -- to insist that the OAS start paying attention to other breaches of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. A good place to start would be neighboring Nicaragua, where would-be strongman Daniel Ortega is entrenching himself in power through fraudulent elections, corrupt manipulation of the courts and orchestrated violence.

In Washington, meanwhile, Republicans such as Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who helped to prolong the Honduran crisis, should have no more excuse to hold up the confirmation of the administration's appointments for Latin American posts. As it happens, the leader of the U.S. delegation in Honduras this week, outgoing Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, is one of the State Department professionals abused by Mr. DeMint. Having recorded the Obama administration's biggest diplomatic success so far, Mr. Shannon ought to be allowed to take up his new post as ambassador to Brazil.

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