September 22, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America, National Security and Defense

Why are We Sending Mixed Messages to Honduras?

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Although those words were first penned more than half a century ago in a dark Birmingham jail, Rev. King's powerful words continue to inspire those facing hardships today, even in distant lands.

Consider recent headlines from Honduras. For the past few months, this small Central American country has been caught up in a political firestorm, leaving many casual observers with more questions than answers. The reality is that, beyond the political theater the removal of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's has caused, important issues are at stake. These concern not only the people of Honduras, but our country, too.

Honduras first began generating headlines back on June 28, when Honduran soldiers, following the orders from the country's Supreme Court, exiled Zelaya. The court charged the former president with, among other things, violating the nation's constitution.

Legal experts argue that the Honduran Supreme Court, Congress, and military acted to defend the Honduran constitution and to stop a presidential power-grab by Manuel Zelaya. Hundreds of thousands of free citizens rejected the idea of Honduras becoming an impoverished copycat of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. They don't want to see their country pulled apart by ideological divisions.

To this date, the interim government of Honduras has resisted the idea of allowing Zelaya to return to the presidency. It fears his ability to overturn the electoral process and destroy the foundations of Honduran democracy. It intends to restore constitutional order by allowing the November elections to proceed as intended and under close international supervision. That would allow the Honduran people to decide their fate.

Since his removal, Zelaya has maintained that he alone holds the key to political legitimacy in Honduras. He denies any responsibility for the illegal actions that led up to his removal. He counts on the backing of Chavez and a bevy of anti-democrats, who endorse his return to office. Like scores of Latin American presidents and chief executives before him, Zelaya has found the powers of high office intoxicating. He aims to extend his tenure.

Yet the evidence against Zelaya is convincing. His defiance of Congress and the Honduran Electoral Tribunal in his efforts to hold an illegal referendum, his refusal to abide by rulings of the Supreme Court, and his illegal firing of the head of the Armed Forces - all were all stepping stones in his long string of efforts to consolidate power while attempting to trample the nation's constitution. Manuel Zelaya was working with his allies as early as the fall of 2008 to generate support in anticipation for his power play.

Unfortunately, our country's response to the ongoing situation in Honduras has been puzzling.

For starters, the Obama administration was slow to act, largely staying on the sidelines as the situation in Honduras leading up to June 28 unfolded. Second and perhaps more troubling, the administration has largely sided with Zelaya and against the Honduran constitution. For instance, see the U.S. decision to cut off future financial aid to this small nation.

Lastly, our country has agreed with Zelaya that the November elections should not be recognized, thus opening a Pandora's Box of international complications. This position unfortunately has played perfectly to the gleeful hands of the fierce anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Americans are inclined to pay little attention to Honduras. It's small and poor. But what's crucial, as the White House and the State Department should realize, is that Honduras can serve as a template for constitutional government. We can teach in Honduras lessons about the constitutional order and democratic governance that we cannot teach in Bolivia, Nicaragua or Venezuela.

At the heart of the matter, the brave people of Honduras believe they have stood up for democracy. Specifically, they have defended their constitution and the importance of respecting term limits and preserving limited government.

As happy beneficiaries of this form of government in our own country (which began, after all, with resistance to the illegal acts of a monarch), we should assist others who are willing to stand up for their freedom and resist what they see at the designs of a tyrant.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate and Ray Walser, Ph.D. , is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
Accounting

Ray Walser, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in The Americano