As the Honduran crisis is still unresolved and attempts at mediation continue, the case has presented an interesting challenge whose outcome could be crucial for the future of the region and the United States.
For the time being Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias, is trying (so far unsuccessfully) to mediate between the current President of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, and ousted Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya. The Obama Administration did the right thing by encouraging President Arias’s intervention as well as opposing Zelaya’s demand that a deadline be set for his return to power.
Yet the Obama Administration, in principle, has supported the return of Zelaya to power as part of any settlement. This point requires further analysis because we are not merely dealing with an internal Honduran problem but also with a problem that has far reaching regional and international implications.
Zelaya was, indeed, democratically elected. In his attempt to pursue a constitutional reform via referendum he engaged in a violation of the constitution as it was sanctioned by the Honduran Supreme Court and the national Congress. The military intervened to prevent Zelaya from carrying out unconstitutional measures. Because that action involved a military intervention, it prompted negative reactions in the U.S., Latin America and Europe.
The action by the Honduran military was aimed at preventing Zelaya from doing what is being done in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador: that is strengthening the prerogatives of the executive power via a constitutional reform and using that as a stepping stone towards dictatorship.
In order to understand the severity of Zelaya’s actions, we have to imagine a situation where President Barack Obama tries to pass legislation on health care, immigration, or any other policy. For Obama to expect full support in Congress or even full support in the Democratic Party would be unrealistic. Yet President Obama would be so eager to pass legislation or implement policy in all these areas, that instead of negotiating with Congress, he appeals to popular referendums taking advantage of his current popularity. Thus, because Obama is annoyed at Congressional resistance and because he is aware of his popularity, he calls for a constitutional reform via a popular referendum that approves a constitution that increases the power of the President to carry out a "socially just policy". Would not America be outraged at such an action? That is exactly what Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela, what Evo Morales did in Bolivia, what Rafael Correa did in Ecuador and what Zelaya tried to do in Honduras.
Zelaya’s actions also raise a serious suspicion regarding his dealings with Hugo Chavez. In other words, it sounds like in exchange for economic support and other types of agreements beneficial to Honduras, President Zelaya seems to have compromised his country’s constitution and its democracy. This adds an element of corruption to a man who was elected as head of the liberal party, a party that holds conservative economic views, quite the opposite of views held by Chavez. Certainly leaders can change their minds about certain things. But how can we explain Zelaya’s quick ideological turn around? One thing is to accept Venezuelan largess but another thing is to move his country into a Chavista sphere of influence by showing disdain and undermining state institutions. This raises eyebrows as to whether Zelaya’s move could have been part of an unwritten agreement between him and Chavez. If this is the case we are talking about a major case of political prostitution where a whole country is put up for sale by a single man. If this is the case, Zelaya needs to be investigated on grounds of corruption.
If the Obama Administration insists on the principle that any settlement should return Mr. Zelaya to power we may be facing a case of a Latin American Yalta.
The Yalta conference that took place early in 1945 between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, paved the way for the subjugation of Poland and later countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia into the Soviet sphere of influence. At the time of the Yalta conference, the Soviets had the advantage of having their troops in the heart of Europe. This card was strongly used by Stalin to get strategic and political advantages from Roosevelt and Churchill in the negotiations.
In the current Latin American situation, Chavez has an advantage comparable with Stalin’s during Yalta. Chavez is a) generous oil producer and distributor of wealth among Latin American countries b) Chavez has integrated into his sphere of influence countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and probably El Salvador and Paraguay plus a few small Caribbean nations. c) In addition, populist governments such as Argentina support Chavez, and social democracies such as Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have displayed indifference towards the Chavista phenomenon or have been apologists of the dictator. D) The organization of American States (OAS) under the leadership of Jose Miguel Insulza has de-facto empowered Chavez by conspicuously ignoring his anti-democratic steps against the rule of law, the political opposition, and the media and against his own interference in the internal affairs of other countries in an attempt to influence their political outcomes. In other words, losing the battle in Honduras means a big victory for Chavez and the spread of dictatorship in Latin America.
At the minimum the Obama Administration needs to do no harm in this situation. By isolating Honduras and threatening to stop all financial aid, we are inadvertently strengthening the Chavista countries while discouraging Honduran resistance to dictatorship.
The best solution would be to move forward with the scheduled November elections without restoring Zelaya. However, if the Administration’s idea is to restore Zelaya in order not to be an accomplice to a coup d’état, it needs to be done in a certain way. If restored, Zelaya should face impeachment over his constitutional violations and also undergo an investigation as to how exactly his dealings with Chavez are related to his project of constitutional reform.
These phenomena of "elected dictatorships" need to be exposed for what they are and countries need to find legal mechanisms of protection against them. Honduras has taken a stand against dictatorship and provided us with a "wake up" call.
Dr. Luis Fleischman is Senior Advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C.
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