December 11, 2009

December 11, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America

What I Saw in Honduras

Americans take many things for granted: our high standard of living, our low infant mortality rate and our democratic government, to name a few. Witnessing firsthand the 2009 Honduran presidential election reminded me of all these things.

I am particularly struck by how fragile democracy truly is. Despite fears of violence, unrest and calls to boycott the election, Hondurans came to the polls in droves. They elected Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo as their next president.

We may be tempted to dismiss that news. Elections happen all the time, right? But we should all extend our deepest congratulations to the good people of Honduras, who have just completed a wonderful exercise in democracy.

I was fortunate enough to be among the more than 500 international observers from 31 countries watching this year's 2009 Honduran elections. Besides voting for their next president, Hondurans also selected members of congress and mayors for all of cities, including Tegucigalpa.

After months of unrest and uncertainty, amid fears of violence and calls for boycotting the process, some 60 percent of all eligible Honduran voters came out and voted. Honduras defied the world and its biggest skeptics by carrying out a peaceful election, surpassing their previous presidential election with a higher voter turn-out.

Unfortunately for Honduras, one of the skeptics included their former president, Manuel "Mel" Zelaya. He'd predicted that a low voter turnout would signal to the world that Hondurans didn't believe in the legitimacy of the election. Fortunately for Hondurans, Zelaya was wrong.

Of course, in badmouthing the election, Zelaya was likely hoping that Hondurans would vindicate his desire to extend his own presidential term. After all, he long ago put the interests of his faction over the state's constitution and institutions when, back in June, Zelaya engaged in a relentless campaign to expand his powers and amend the country's constitution to extend his stay in the presidential palace for possibly another four years and beyond.

To understand why this set off a political firestorm, it's important to know where Honduras has been. Unlike in our country, real democracy in Honduras is a relatively new concept. For much of 20th century, political strongmen and the military ruled Honduras. It wasn't until after 1980 that Hondurans began living in a competitive democracy. And in order to prevent history from repeating itself, the country's constitution limited presidents to only a single four-year term.

In fact, Honduras is one of the few countries in Latin America that explicitly prohibits a president, no matter how popular, from seeking re-election.

Mel Zelaya didn't seem to think this concept applied to him. He sought to amend the constitution behind closed doors. When that failed, he began appealing directly to the people.

Hondurans stood firm in defense of their constitution, even though too many in the international community -- the Obama administration included -- gave the country the cold shoulder.

At a time when democracy is under attack in Latin America, Hondurans proved to the world that they are able to dutifully carry out the rule of law by holding free, fair and transparent elections. As an international observer, I saw dozens of volunteers, young and old, working the polls to carry out their important responsibilities.

I was also able to see hundreds of Hondurans, including the disabled and elderly, wait in long lines just for a chance to have their voices heard. Democracy was no longer that abstract concept I had learned in school; it was playing out before my eyes.

Unfortunately, politics are overshadowing Honduras' historic presidential election and virtually no international bodies want to recognize the winner. This would be a tragic mistake.

The good people of Honduras deserve our complete support for their bravery in defending the rule of law and a democratic form of government. The world was watching Honduras -- and its citizens passed with flying colors.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

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Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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Related Issues: Latin America

First Appeared in Human Events