Protecting Their Own: The International Community Sides With Zelaya
Liberal institutionalism is a branch of international relations theory which holds international organizations in high regard. Liberal institutionalists believe that such organizations can promote peace by fostering cooperation between states. Honduras is learning the hard way how this same cooperative structure can also be abused by dictators to assault democracy, while the response by the international community at once reveals both the folly of placing too much faith in such organizations and the shallowness of the West’s rhetoric on liberty.
Let there be no doubt that the situation in Honduras is not ideal. Supporters of democracy should never wish to see elected leaders removed by force; yet sometimes there is little alternative. Given the recent string of populist, left-wing strongmen in Latin America – such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – who have successfully rewritten their nations’ constitutions, undermined democratic institutions and rolled back liberal freedoms, the legislative and judicial branches of Honduras were right to be concerned over ex-President Manuel Zelaya’s intentions in calling for a referendum to explore constitutional change. In response, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled this act unlawful while the congress even passed a new law making perfectly clear the illegal nature of Zelaya’s plan.
When the head of the Joint Chiefs refused to provide logistical support for the referendum on the basis that it would be in violation of the law, Zelaya sacked him. He then blamed the growing political crisis on “some sectors that have promoted destabilization and chaos.” These sectors, we must take it, include every political branch of the Honduran government other than Zelaya, as he has acted without even the support of his own party.
Although he tried to cast blame elsewhere, it is clear from his actions that the primary instigator of the crisis has been Zelaya himself. After dismissing his highest military officers, an act which prompted the heads of all major branches to resign in protest, Zelaya personally led a mob to storm an air force base where Venezuelan-printed ballots for the referendum were being held.
When the courts ordered General Vasquez reinstated, Zelaya not only refused to comply, but also wrapped himself in left-wing populism. “[The Supreme Court] only imparts justice for the powerful, the rich and the bankers,” he told his supporters before adding, “[it] only causes problems for democracy.” Zelaya has apparently confused himself for democracy. Hugo Chavez often expressed similar views on his own country’s court system before eventually packing it with allies in his constant quest to undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Honduras decided it would not wait around for Zelaya to do the same.
Fed up with Zelaya’s illegal actions, and accusing him of “preparing his own coup by conspiring to shut down the congress and courts,” as Justice Rosalinda Cruz put it, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya. The warrant was the culmination of an investigation that had been underway for weeks. It was also unanimously approved by all 15 judges. It was under this authority that the military acted when it shuttled Zelaya out of the country. The military then immediately stepped aside so that civilian authorities could follow the legal process for appointing a replacement.
The international community, previously uninterested in Zelaya’s illiberal actions, promptly responded with righteous indignation and demands for Zelaya’s return. Democracy, they proclaimed against all fact or reason, was not under assault by Zelaya, but by those who removed him. The Organization of America States, with the support of the Obama administration, demanded Zelaya be immediately returned to office with no additional limits on his presidential powers. If Honduras did not comply, the OAS threatened a suspension of their membership along with economic sanctions.
Washington even joined Venezuela and Bolivia in cosponsoring a UN resolution condemning the removal of Zelaya as an illegal military coup. The U.N. General Assembly, where only 90 of the almost 200 world leaders represent nations that are ranked fully democratic by Freedom House, unanimously voted for the measure. Barack Obama then had the gall to claim that he would “stand with democracy,” all the while carving out a position indistinguishable from that of Hugo Chavez and his client states. This kind of international circling of the dictatorial wagons is to be expected from a mostly undemocratic body like the U.N., but change has indeed come to Washington when even the United States cannot differentiate between illiberal Latin American leftism and real democracy.
Apparently neither President Obama nor anyone in his administration has bothered to read the Honduran constitution, which prohibited even a proposal of reforming the term limits placed on their president. Article 239 states
“No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.”
This provision is easy to understand given the history of Honduras, where, like many Latin American nations, the people have suffered under years of military rule. In 1982 they carefully crafted a constitution that finally allowed the nation an orderly return to democracy. Unlike other Latin American constitutions, this one has been able to stand up to rabble-rousing, referendum-using populists precisely because some sections may not legally be repealed by any means. Zelaya, in even attempting to remove his term limits, forfeited his office long before the military showed up on his doorstep.
The prospect that such a system might successfully fight off illiberal strongmen has Latin America’s remaining socialists deeply concerned, and so they have been working tirelessly to see their partner in crime restored to office. Chavez and his Nicaraguan buddy, Daniel Ortega, have boththreatened military action against Honduras. Yet the White House is too busy condemning the enforcement of the Honduran constitution to take issue with this bullying. The OAS, which recently welcomed Castro’s still communist Cuba back into organization’s fold, even hypocritically dusted off and trotted out its democracy promoting charter to justify the suspension of Honduras. Honduras promptly and rightfully told them to shove off, and left the discredited body.
Democracy promoting institutions like the OAS have been utterly compromised by the inclusion of illiberal, anti-democratic strongmen. Proponents of allowing undemocratic nations to participate in international organizations have long claimed that such engagement will enhance the spread of freedom to those countries. The opposite has turned out to be the case. While nation’s such as Cuba have not become more democratic, the West has decidedly become less willing to defend liberal democracy. The language of democracy has now become a tool for the undemocratic, used to fool the willfully blind while petty, would-be tyrants rip apart the very institutions they claim to be protecting.
Until recently the United States has at least rhetorically stood against these efforts, but America’s new President, in all his cowardice, has decided to surrender the language of freedom to those who would deny its application to their own people. The fledgling – yet still bravely democratic – government of Honduras has stood strong despite this betrayal. It is a sad day that sees America abdicate its once proud role as the beacon of freedom in the world. I pray that they can forgive our governments now that the people of Honduras have been left in the dark, abandoned by the supposedly free nation’s of the world, to find their own way.