A Coup for Democracy?
Honduras is guilty of two sins: impatience and size. The rest of the world is committing two more: hubris and hypocrisy.
It is now clear that if the Honduran Supreme Court or Congress had used legal means such as impeachment before asking the army to remove President Manuel Zelaya, we would be calling events there a constitutional crisis rather than a coup d'etat.
This would be especially true if Honduras were a larger country such as Brazil or Pakistan and its court, Congress, attorney general, human rights ombudsman and electoral commission were all saying afterward, as they do in Tegucigalpa, that the army moved legally in alliance with them. The Honduran army never took political control.
Perhaps the Honduran leaders were constitutionally "lazy," as Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia mused. Certainly, they were being forced to act quickly by a president pushing to carry out an illegal referendum this Sunday in defiance of those constitutional institutions and his own party.
But small countries are easy to punish in order to send messages, as Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue notes. The U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to condemn the overthrow of Honduras's democratically elected president. Of course, the fact that only 90 of the world's nearly 200 nations are ranked by Freedom House as fully democratic suggests that many of the votes had more to do with the precedent of protecting the hides of incumbents than with democracy.
Many Latin American presidents, such as Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, have gone further, recalling ambassadors and pledging to personally accompany Zelaya back to Honduras. Yet many have been just as quick to push for the entry of Cuba, a dictatorship, into the Organization of American States.
But hypocrisy has always been a part of politics and diplomacy, sometimes even for good reasons.
The deeper and more troubling error in the current rush to judgment on poor Honduras has to do with the philosophical nature of democracy itself. The democracy fundamentalists -- from the right, demanding intervention in Iran, for example; and from the left, demanding intervention in Honduras -- have become so fanatical in their moralism that they have lost sight of the fact that democracy is not the same as legitimacy.
The distinctions are crucial. The threat growing in Latin America, Asia and Africa, according to Freedom House, is not dictatorship but what political theorists call illiberal democracy. Venezuela is the poster case in which a president, Hugo Chávez, is democratically elected and then goes about, through democratic referendums and Congress, constraining freedom by changing laws and institutions. Chávez and others like him create the "tyranny of the majority" that theorists behind the American Constitution warned was the weakness of democracy by itself, without constitutional liberalism protecting the rights of the individual.
The real issue in most of the region's past military coups has been the failure of the political systems that led to them. The dirty secret about the region's history since at least World War II is that most coups were popular, carried out not by an avaricious military seeking power but by civilians banging on the barracks doors demanding intervention to halt political or economic chaos.
Fernández de Kirchner, for example, conveniently ignores that the coups that overthrew Juan Perón in the 1950s and Isabel Perón in 1976 were met by millions of Argentines celebrating in the streets. What gives a coup a bad name is the abuses that usually follow once the military is in power.
Which brings us back to Honduras. Brodi Kemp, a researcher at Harvard's Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, says: "You could argue that Zelaya gave up his claim to moral legitimacy when he went outside the constitution. If you accept that, then what do the other political actors do? . . . Sometimes an act is legitimate even though it proceeded illegitimately."
Polls and the tepid demonstrations in Zelaya's favor indicate that he has little popular support. That is not reason enough for a coup, but the many factors suggest that while his removal should have been better handled, some humility is called for in helping Honduras work through a constitutional crisis.
President Obama was correct in calling Zelaya's ouster illegal, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declined to call the action a coup -- in hopes of bringing Zelaya back into government but with wings clipped. In this instance, the U.S. government played the morally right hand.