On Sunday, the citizens of Honduras woke up with one president and went to bed with another. Manuel Zelaya was forced out of the country -- replaced, with full backing from the Congress, the nation's courts, and its military, with Interim President Robert Micheletti.
Some have denounced this dramatic change as a "coup d'etat" and an assault on democracy. In truth, it was much more of a last-ditch effort to protect Honduras' constitutional order and rule of law from a reckless populist.
Honduras and the United States have a long history of friendly relations. We signed a free-trade treaty in 2005; Honduras was an early contributor to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But relations chilled, and chilled hard, after Zelaya won election nearly four years ago.
Zelaya sees Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro as beacons for the future. As president, he tried to steer Honduras hard left -- but succeeded mainly in boosting corruption and cronyism. The independent monitors at Transparency International now give Honduras the same ranking for corruption as Libya and Ethiopia.
Honduras is a poor nation, and got worse on Zelaya's watch. But rather than blame the global downturn or his own failures, Zelaya sought to rally the masses behind him by fingering the nation's elites as behind the nation's woes.
He sought vindication by ordering a national referendum that, he said, could alter the constitution and allow him to run for re-election. And when every free, democratic institution from the Electoral Tribunal to the Supreme Court said no to his proposal, Zelaya pushed ahead anyway.
Last week, he called the military on the carpet, demanding it support his referendum. Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the head of the armed forces, considered this an illegal order, and refused to play ball -- so Zelaya fired him. (He accepted the defense minister's resignation, too.)
The next day, the Supreme Court ruled the firing unjustified. Zelaya refused to obey its decision. The court, he declared, worked only for the rich and caused problems for "democracy."
At every step, Zelaya's chief international backer, Hugo Chavez, cheered him on.
He'd set Sunday as the day of his contra-constitutional referendum. Instead, the Congress, the courts and the military stepped in and pulled the plug on Zelaya's maneuverings.
They sent him packing on a plane to Costa Rica. Then, in a deliberate, bipartisan manner, they selected a civilian president to serve through scheduled elections in November.
This was no coup, but a desperate act to protect the nation's constitution and its institutions from presidential excess and a descent into misrule Chavez-style.
Chavez, of course, is outraged, vowing to do everything short of landing Venezuelan marines in Honduras to restore Zelaya. If his ally doesn't recover power, "el Loco" will lose face at home and throughout the region. Sources report Venezuelan agitators and operatives are already on the ground in the Honduran capitol of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere. Trouble can be expected.
Utopians in Washington believe that the Organization of American States, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, the European Union and the State Department will be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Let Zelaya back in power, they urge; defend "democracy."
This simply ignores the fact that restoring Zelaya would undercut every free institution in the nation -- green-lighting every extra-legal move he might take in the name of the people.
Washington realists recognize this fact and fear a return engagement. If Zelaya achieves his ambition and returns to power, he could condemn Honduras to years of vendetta politics and populism of the worst sort -- delivering a weakened nation into the eager embrace of Hugo Chavez & Co.
Letting a friendly country fall into the Chavez camp does no one any good. The new government of Honduras wants to preserve peace and the constitutional order. Warts and all, it deserves the chance.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at Heritage.
First Appeared in the New York Post