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Meeting in urgent session in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a demand that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya be restored to power, calling his ouster earlier that day “an unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order.” The OAS Permanent Council proclaimed that it would not recognize any government resulting from that “coup d’état.” Pretty strong stuff–but too little, too late.
Manuel Zelaya began his four-year term as president of the Central American Republic of Honduras in January 2006. The harsh fact is that most of his countrymen regarded Zelaya as a capricious blowhard who was too incompetent to do any permanent damage. Not surprisingly, when it came to shredding the Honduran constitution to allow him to seek a second term, they declined to go along with his clumsy power grab.
Most Latin American countries limit their presidents to single terms, mindful that too much power held for too long might produce a dangerous strongman. This phenomenon is common enough that Latins found it necessary to coin a word: caudillo. Caudillos had fallen out of fashion until Venezuela’s dictator, Hugo Chavez, burst on to the scene in 1998.
Once he was elected in 1998, Chavez rammed through constitutional amendments that concentrated most of the powers of the state in his hands. In the coup de grace against Venezuelan democracy, last year he engineered a “reform” that permits him to seek the presidency indefinitely.
Chavez has urged his acolytes in Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua–upon whom he has lavished vast sums of foreign aid–to shove aside constitutional norms to impose their will. That is precisely what Zelaya was attempting to do when he came up against the country’s other democratic institutions, which declared unconstitutional a popular referendum that he hoped would bless his second term.
Specifically, Honduras Electoral Tribunal, Congress, Supreme Court, attorney general and human rights ombudsman each declared Zelaya’s plan unlawful. Undaunted, Zelaya stepped up his populist rhetoric in a bid to whip up the mob against the legal obstacles in his way. It speaks volumes that Zelaya was never able to mobilize large demonstrations. The idea that “Mel” Zelaya thought he deserved a second term left most Hondurans merely mystified.
Zelaya dismissed General Romeo Vásquez after he refused to ignore the Court order and instruct his troops to distribute the referendum ballots. When Zelaya sacked Vásquez, all of the military chiefs and the civilian minister of defense resigned in protest. After the Supreme Court ordered Vásquez reinstated, Zelaya led a mob of his supporters to confiscate the ballots.
In short, Zelaya brushed aside every other institution of the state in insisting on a referendum that would benefit his selfish interests.
On Sunday morning, Zelaya was arrested by military forces and sent in to exile in Costa Rica. The Supreme Court has ruled that the military had acted lawfully in detaining Zelaya and preventing the illegal referendum. The Congress quickly accepted Zelaya’s purported “resignation” and, in accordance with the constitution, appointed the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, as Zelaya’s successor. Micheletti immediately promised to convene a national dialogue and, unlike Zelaya, vowed to respect the results of presidential elections scheduled for November.
Ironically, a few short weeks ago, President Zelaya led a fight in the OAS general assembly to recognize the dictatorship of Cuba, allowing it to take a seat at the OAS. Doing so would have rendered the Inter-American Democratic Charter inoperable. That is the same Democratic Charter that regional diplomats are now citing to demand that Zelaya be returned to power–despite his willful abuses of the “separation of powers” enshrined in that document. That is the very Democratic Charter, which Zelaya was willing to violate to recognize an unelected dictator in Havana, that his supporters now use to deny recognition of his constitutional successor in Tegucigalpa.
Zelaya’s self-serving lawlessness was ignored completely by OAS leadership and, as far as one can tell, by every government in the region that now dares to pass judgment on Honduras’ constitutional order. The feckless regional diplomats who have failed to confront undemocratic caudillos in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras are complicit in their abuses. Today, they have neither the credibility nor moral authority to pass judgment on those desperate patriots who act to defend their freedom, in Honduras or anywhere else.
Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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