Since June 28--when the Honduran military placed Manuel Zelaya
on an aircraft bound for San Jose, Costa Rica--massive media
coverage, diplomatic maneuvering, and political theater have
accompanied efforts to restore Zelaya to the presidency of his
Central American nation.
In the aftermath of his exile, Manuel Zelaya's shift from the
political center toward both foreign and domestic Leftist
radicalism has become apparent to the world. Over the past two
years, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, a democratic charlatan and
unabashed opponent of U.S. policy, has charmed Zelaya with oil and
aid, pulling him out of the U.S. orbit. Chávez encouraged
Zelaya to exploit the polarizing schism between rich and poor, the
shortcomings of Honduran institutions, and the suspect promise of a
new political order favorable to the dispossessed.
Cowboy President to
Chávez's despotic influence has pervaded Zelaya's
approach to the rule of law as well. With the complicity of
Chávez, Zelaya dismissed negotiation and compromise,
adopting instead an increasingly cavalier disregard for Honduras'
legal and institutional restraints on presidential power. Zelaya
acted increasingly in the manner of "the man on horseback," or
Latin American caudillo [strong man], in keeping with Latin
America's authoritarian traditions--Chávez being one such
Conservatives reflexively fear concentrations of unchecked
executive power. Zelaya wanted to capitalize on popular discontent
with the status quo and the dominance of the traditional Liberal
and National parties in order to upset the political applecart and
usher in a new era of "participatory democracy."
Obviously, Zelaya miscalculated regarding his opposition.
Resistance has come from government institutions, political
parties, the military, the Catholic Church, and the business
community. The Church resisted the idea of a polarizing conflict
and cynical outside manipulation. Business feared the assault on
private property and unsustainable dependency on government and
Conservative Hondurans justifiably feared the new Bolivarian
axis which operates in concert to advance a revolutionary
agenda--"socialism of the 21st century." It is a mélange of
authoritarianism, Marxism-Leninism, anti-Americanism, nationalism,
and opportunism. As The Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes recently
observed, this revolutionary agenda involves the "illiberal abuses
of the ballot box and the degradation of constitutions" that become
the hallmarks of pseudo-democracy. It is backed by Venezuela's
capacity to direct petroleum resources to client states along with
proven agitation and propaganda tactics honed over decades in Cuba,
Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.
Chávez and company are adamant about Zelaya's return to
power, and fearful that successful resistance to their tactics of
infiltration and disruption might stiffen resistance throughout the
Western Hemisphere. Perhaps they were frightened further by the
massive rejection of Chávez friends and fellow
leftist-populists Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in a recent election
A Conservative Response
The very laxness of international protections against the
Chavista threat has clearly galvanized a conservative
response in Honduras. Although Zelaya met with Secretary of State
Clinton, there is little doubt he considers himself a full partner
of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alternative for the
Americas (ALBA) and that his every move has been carefully
coordinated with his ALBA allies. Most recently Zelaya has operated
out of Nicaragua where ALBA mainstay President Daniel Ortega just
launched an effort to change the Nicaraguan constitution to allow
The interim government of Roberto Micheletti believes in the
legality/constitutionality of its actions in removing Zelaya.
Mediation efforts undertaken by President Oscar Arias, backed by
the U.S., insisted on Zelaya's return to the presidency albeit
conditioned and with reported safeguards. This demand sparked a
fierce debate within the interim government which appeared prepared
to accept this condition. In the end reports indicate that the
Supreme Court would not reverse its position that Zelaya's actions
gravely injured the constitutional order and cannot be expunged.
For many Hondurans the court's ruling represents a triumph of
principle over expediency. A government based on checks and
balances and rule of law does not easily bend to accommodate
The Supreme Court demands Zelaya return to face justice and the
trial warranted for his violations of Honduran law. Fervent
supporters of Zelaya denigrate the institutions that removed a
president and vow to gut them. Conservatives rightfully fear a
fratricidal conflict if Zelaya is allowed to return.
The U.S. Position
The U.S. supported OAS and U.N. condemnations and declarations
that the Honduran constitutional order suffered a catastrophic, and
perhaps fatal, interruption. The position of the Obama
Administration rests primarily on the charge that Zelaya's
expulsion by the Honduran military from office was illegal. It
demands Zelaya's return without taking into account the
constitutionality of the acts of the Honduran Congress and the
Supreme Court or publicly speaking out about Zelaya's violation of
Honduran law. It granted Zelaya a presumption of legality and
protections inconsistent with the analysis of the actions leading
to his removal and expulsion.
Conservatives are rightfully troubled when a true totalitarian,
Raul Castro; a pseudo-democrat, Hugo Chávez; and President
Obama stand together. The largely unqualified and less than
even-handed support for the return of Zelaya has caused a strong
conservative response in the U.S. The position of the Obama
Administration raises concerns about where it stands against the
relentless efforts of anti-American leaders to erode U.S. influence
and interests in Latin America. The position raises the fear that
good governance, constitutionality, and rule of law are secondary
to attempts to forge a new relationship with Chávez, Castro,
and their ideological ilk, and to remain bound by the faltering
multilateralism of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Honduras totters on the brink. Zelaya continues to try to force
his return. While public opinion in Honduras remains seriously
divided, a significant number of Hondurans appear willing to defy
international pressure in order not to restore Zelaya and thereby
fuel Chávez and his allies.
In the name of democracy for all, the U.S. needs to distance
itself from the erratic, messianic Zelaya. It should move boldly to
accept the workings of the Honduran constitution, insist on
Zelaya's legal responsibility to answer the charges against him,
and promote peace, dialogue, and a recovery of trust.
- Friends of Honduran democracy. The Obama
Administration should move away from the OAS and create an active,
pro-democracy grouping comprised of nations, such as Canada, Costa
Rica, Panama, Colombia, and others, whose objective is a balanced
dialogue and national reconciliation in Honduras.
- Avoid economic sanctions. As a long-term friend
concerned about the majority in a poor country, the Obama
Administration should refrain from punitive economic measures that
are injurious to the poor and difficult to remove.
The Path to Resolution
The path to resolving the Honduran crisis begins with a genuine
understanding of the facts on the ground, a recognition of the
negative impact of Chávez and ALBA, and more rather than
less direct involvement by the U.S. in helping to support a genuine
rather than cosmetic end to the crisis.
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 The Heritage