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Nicaragua, Honduras and hypocrisy

Wednesday, October 20, 2010; A16

LAST YEAR, leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya sought to stage an illegal referendum as part of a bid to overturn a constitutional ban on his reelection. The country's supreme court ordered his arrest by the army, which then overstepped legal bounds by deporting him. Led by its leftists, the Organization of American States rushed to denounce the "coup" and expel Honduras. Despite subsequently holding a presidential election recognized as constitutional, free and fair, the country has not been readmitted to the regional forum.

OAS members signed a special charter nine years ago committing themselves to defend democracy; in Honduras's case, they have been -- to say the least -- hyper-vigilant. But what of neighboring Nicaragua? There, President Daniel Ortega, who, like Mr. Zelaya is a leftist populist, has used blatantly illegal decrees, the manipulation of court rulings and mob violence by his supporters to clear the way for his reelection, even though it is explicitly prohibited by the constitution.

The reaction of the OAS? Utter silence. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza rushed to validate a dubious claim by leftist Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa that a dust-up he had with protesting police on Sept. 30 amounted to a coup attempt. But Mr. Insulza had nothing to say about a ruling the same week by a self-styled supreme court, composed entirely of members of Mr. Ortega's Sandinista movement, that ordered the electoral authority to accept him as a candidate.

Mr. Ortega's assault on Nicaragua's constitution makes both Mr. Zelaya and the Honduran army look timid. The former Marxist dictator lost four consecutive elections beginning in 1990 and has never received more than 38 percent of the vote. But he engineered a constitutional change that allowed his election by a plurality in 2006. When the Congress refused to overturn a ban on his reelection, he turned to the court, which issued an obviously political ruling last year.

This year the terms of two justices expired, raising the possibility that the ruling would not hold up. Mr. Ortega issued a decree extending their terms. When it was pointed out that this was unconstitutional -- Congress must approve the appointment of judges -- the regime reprinted the constitution during a summer recess and inserted a provision allowing the judges to remain in place. The expired judges, meanwhile, named seven other Sandinistas to places on their "court," since the remaining judges refused to recognize them. It was that body that decreed that Mr. Ortega cannot be denied a place on the 2011 presidential ballot.

The Obama administration has condemned these manipulations. But what of the champions of democracy in Honduras, such as Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina? No comment. Which raises the question: Was it really democracy that they were defending in Honduras?

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