Honduras, que importa, right? Does this tiny Central American country warrant all this debate, discussion and media coverage?! Yes, it does, and the Obama administration is right to be defending democracy.
Due attention must be given to the dramatic developments there—not only for the historic regional implications of dealing with a twenty-first century military coup, but for the test of how the U.S. will now conduct its relations in the hemisphere.
Besides being a striking, unsettling reminder of the fragility of our region’s democratic institutions, the event brought to the fore how different the Obama administration’s approach to Latin America is from that of the Bush administration.
On day one, the Obama administration joined other Latin American governments by presenting a swift and unequivocal condemnation of President Manuel Zelaya’s expulsion and calling for his immediate return.
On June 29, President Obama went a bit further, calling the military’s actions a “coup” in his press availability with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe:
“President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” the chill president said.
Obama’s reaction—and that unity among hemispheric leaders of all political stripes—represents a departure from the Bush administration’s “go it alone” cowboy style, particularly in contrast to the U.S. reaction to the 2002 coup in Venezuela against President Hugo Chávez.
The Bush administration initially acknowledged a change of power there, and did not condemn the coup until it collapsed—unlike the quick condemnation by most Latin American governments. This placed the U.S. in a rather lonely and awkward spot as the only country in the hemisphere to suggest that coup was OK.
Another notable difference from the Bush administration’s approach comes with Haiti in 2004, when Democrats slammed the administration for what it called its failure to back ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This had sent a scary signal to democratically-elected governments in this hemisphere, and Chávez has since exploited these and other actions to his own advantage in rallying voters about the hypocrisy of the U.S. evil empire.
But, Obama’s cool remarks squelched Chávez’ initial flame-throwing to depict this as a U.S.-inspired coup. Of course, given U.S. history in Central America that accusation is far from outlandish, and Zelaya’s policies were not exactly in line with those of the United States.
Obama’s move to prioritize rule of law and democratic processes over Zelaya’s ideology and his own questionable actions to “win” another term in office over the constitutional objection of the Congress and Supreme Court effectively disarmed Chávez and bolstered U.S. credibility.
Still, there are legitimate challenges to Obama’s position and that is a subject of debate and even discomfort among some State Department officials. One concern is the administration’s invocation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. For one, is it hypocritical that the U.S. did not invoke the Charter’s principles during the debate over Cuban permission to re-enter the Organization of American States. And, why shouldn’t the U.S. hold Zelaya to these standards when he was arguably resorting to illegal means to convoke a referendum that could eventually lead to amending the constitution to stay in office?
It’s not so black and white.
But, going ahead with the referendum and not obeying the judiciary’s decision is not the same as a military coup! And an elected president’s actions do not warrant a military coup—even to prevent him from potentially using unlawful means to stay in power. Zelaya should be judged on his anti-democratic steps through a fair and free political process when he’s back in the country and in power again.
If Roberto Micheletti, the newly installed leader, stays in office, what signal does that send to Guatemala—a country struggling with its own political polarization in light of murder allegations against President Álvaro Colom?
That said, Obama’s ongoing condemnation of Zelaya’s expulsion, his calling the coup illegal and working with hemispheric organizations like the OAS and countries including Venezuela is a way for the U.S. to restore some of its lost credibility and leadership. And, hopefully also bring some stability back to a Central American country that is small but is still one of our free-trade partners.