The tiny country of Honduras is providing a lesson in humility on the frailty of democracy and the limits in making it work. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, hasn't listened and may soon lose his job. He deserves to.
Honduras's de facto government has been surprisingly hardheaded in defying the OAS, the Obama administration and most world governments by refusing to allow the return of Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president. The equally hardheaded Zelaya has ignored widespread pleas for patience. Saturday, he set up camp on the Nicaraguan border, across from Honduras, and has threatened to return by force. Central America could be thrust back into war.
It's a crisis that should never have happened. In the weeks before Zelaya's ouster, American diplomats behind the scenes tried to encourage moderation as the Honduran president sought recklessly to push through a constitutional referendum that might lead to his reelection. The Supreme Court, the National Congress, the president's own attorney general, the human rights ombudsman and the electoral commission all ruled that the referendum violated the constitution, which clearly outlaws even consideration of a presidential reelection.
Then, the OAS sent in three election observers. Their very presence gave legitimacy to Zelaya's efforts. The Congress asked the OAS mission to leave; it didn't. Empowered, Zelaya then resorted to mob rule by sending supporters to invade a military base and seize the ballots that the electoral commission refused to distribute. The Supreme Court ordered the army to arrest the president. The army did so and sent him into exile.
Insulza then further inflamed the situation by emotionally declaring the ouster a military coup -- "rape," he called it -- and leading an unconditional charge to restore the president. He went so far as to fly in an escort plane as Zelaya tried to return to the country -- an attempt that set off riots at the Tegucigalpa airport and led to the only death in the crisis.
Upset by Insulza's lack of judgment, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bypassed him to ask Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate between the two Honduran sides. Insulza is Chilean, and Chilean government sources say that Clinton has informed them that the Obama administration will not support Insulza's reelection as secretary general when his term is up next year.
Clinton was equally angered by his role in lifting the expulsion of Cuba from the OAS. He was correct in arguing that the Cold War resolution expelling Cuba was no longer valid, but the Americans felt he was less than vigorous in helping draw the democratic lines Cuba must cross to rejoin the organization.
Some conservative critics see ulterior motives. They accuse Insulza of being leftist and pandering for the bloc of OAS reelection votes led by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, chief supporter of Zelaya and the Castro brothers. Insulza certainly has backed away from his activism two years ago defending press freedom in Venezuela and has been largely silent as freedoms erode there and in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
I don't know what is in Insulza's heart, but I am more generous toward him. I have known him as a dedicated, sometimes shrewd public servant and democrat. He is limited by the need for consensus among the 34 members of the OAS and, it seems, by the trauma of the bloody military coup by Augusto Pinochet in his own country 36 years ago. He couldn't see that Honduras was different.
The outdated OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, meanwhile, is designed to prevent coups, but it restricts the OAS from getting involved in internal maneuvers such as packing courts and gutting opposition parties under democratic guise that are the bigger threat in the region today.
The OAS, moreover, is a presidents club. Congresses and courts aren't represented. Presidents tend to be more sympathetic toward reelection and the use of measures such as plebiscites to expand their power.
None of that excuses the harm that Insulza himself has done in Honduras. He has shown no respect for its constitution or institutions. He has been tone-deaf to the need for trust and legitimacy for democracy to work.
Hondurans are right to worry that Zelaya, even if returned in a national unity government, will resort to more demagoguery, as Chávez did after he was temporarily ousted in a 2002 coup. What Insulza should be doing, but isn't, is searching for formulas that allow all the pieces to be put together again in a way that protects real democracy in Honduras and the hemisphere.