Honduras Coup Reveals Fragility of Latin American Democracy

The
fragility of democracy in Latin America was revealed late last month when the
democratically elected president of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by
the army and exiled to neighbouring Costa Rica.

By Dr. Odeen Ishmael
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The fragility of democracy
in Latin America was revealed late last month when the democratically elected
president of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army and exiled to
neighbouring Costa Rica. Significantly, this coup which also forced out
Zelaya's cabinet was backed by a large section of the members of the Congress,
including many of the president's own party, as well as the judges of the
Supreme Court. However, it was firmly opposed by the majority of the Honduran
poorer classes comprising rural peasants and urban workers who have since
mounted mass demonstrations in support of their ousted leader.

The ouster of Zelaya was
the first in Central America since 1993 when the military forced Guatemalan
President Jorge Serrano to step down. In the case of Honduras, the military
dominated political life until the mid-1980s, but despite the end of the era of
coups as a means for political change, clearly it never relinquished the
intervention habit.

This disruption of
democracy is now an aberration in the American hemisphere, and particularly in
Latin America where dictatorial regimes were replaced by democratically elected
governments from the beginning of the 1990s. Even Haiti, where a military coup
overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991, saw the
restoration of the president and his government three years later through the
collaborative efforts of the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of
American States (OAS).

The 34 active member states
of the OAS then proceeded in September 2001 to implement the Inter-American
Democratic Charter which set out sanctions against the removal of governments
in the region by unconstitutional means. The principle of democracy, according
to the Charter, stipulates that governments (and also heads of governments) are
chosen by the electorate to govern during periodic free and fair elections; and
the same electorate has the right to remove those governments (and their
leaders) at subsequent elections.

The UN acted quickly to
condemn the Honduran coup by refusing to recognise the de facto regime, and
demanding the restoration of the president. The European Union also condemned
what it called a "coup d'etat" against Zelaya.

On July 5, the OAS moved
one step further by suspending Honduras from the hemispheric body for breaching
the conditions of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This was a noteworthy
action since the organisation had not taken that measure when the
democratically elected President Aristide was ousted again in 2004.

Interestingly, back in
1991, both the UN and the OAS recognised the then Haitian government in exile
which continued to be officially seated in those bodies. Based on this
precedence, some political observers feel that a similar pattern should have
been followed with respect to Honduras.

Since the OAS' action,
President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has been mediating between Zelaya and the
"interim president", Roberto Micheletti, to enable Zelaya's reinstatement to
the presidency. Zelaya said his restoration as president was "non-negotiable"
and has even agreed to the formation of a national government, but Micheletti
insisted that the president's return to power was "an impossibility." The
success of Arias' mediation, therefore, will depend of how far the coup leaders
are willing to bend. But if this mediation process drags on, there may be no
possible solution to the situation until after the November 29 general
elections which will choose a new president. However, the United States has
suggested it may not recognize those elections if they are held under the de
facto government.

Of interest to note, the de
facto Honduran regime and the country's Supreme Court insist that Zelaya
breached the nation's constitution which led to his removal. However, if the
president indeed broke the law, many political analysts insist that the
Congress should have followed legal procedures to impeach him, rather than for
the army pulling him out of bed and spiriting him out of the country in the
dead of night.

What was Zelaya's "crime"?
According to his opponents, he planned to hold a referendum on June 28 to find
out if the people wanted him to stand for election for a second term, instead
of the single term as currently stipulated in the constitution. Such a
referendum, the Supreme Court, the army and a large section of the Congress
maintained, was a breach of the country's constitution.

But the actual question of
the aborted referendum read: "Do you think that the 2009 general elections
should include a fourth ballot in order to make a decision about the creation
of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new constitution?"

There was absolutely
nothing in it to indicate that Zelaya was seeking second term!

This issue was clearly
explained by Mark Weisbrot, Director of the Washington-based Centre for
Economic Policy Research who wrote in the July 8, 2009 issue of the London
Guardian: "There was no way for Zelaya to extend his rule even if the
referendum had been held and passed, and even if he had gone on to win a
binding referendum on the November ballot. The 28 June referendum was nothing
more than a non-binding poll of the electorate, asking whether the voters
wanted to place a non-binding referendum on the November ballot to approve a
redrafting of the country's constitution. If it had passed and if the November
referendum had been held (which was not very likely) and had also passed, the
same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped
down in January 2010."

Zelaya's supporters are
adamant that his overthrow resulted because of his leftist ideological position
and his closeness to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-wing
leaders of the region. He had entered the presidency with a centre-right
ideology, but he alienated many of his allies in the Liberal Party by moving
the country leftward.

This appears to have
alarmed the right-wing oligarchy in Honduras, which condemned his plans for
constitutional change as what they, illogically, saw as his attempt to stay in
power for a second term. It also gives credence to the view that if Zelaya had
not moved leftward the coup would not have occurred.

President Chavez, an
outspoken critic of the coup, insists that the right wing in Latin America has
now substituted the word "Chavism" for "communism" as the major fear factor,
adding that "now Chavez is a threat and the blame for everything."

The United States, which
firmly condemned the coup, has turned up pressure on the de facto regime,
warning that it will face severe sanctions if Zelaya is not restored to power.
It has since halted the $16.5 million military assistance programme to Honduras
and stated that a further $180 million in aid could also be at risk. However,
it has not yet threatened to cut off trade or remittances, a move which could
quickly bring down the nation's economy. The European Union has added to the
pressure by announcing the suspension of $93.1 million (65.5 million euros) in
aid. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank also froze their
assistance programmes to the country.

Since these economic
sanctions will be very damaging, Zelaya's supporters, on the other hand, are
advocating targeted economic sanctions on the coup leaders and their business
supporters to force the interim regime to allow his return rather than these
broader measures that might harm the country's poorest citizens.

Undoubtedly, the Honduran
coup d'etat highlights the fact that democracy in the Latin American region is
still not yet established on solid foundations. President Lula da Silva of
Brazil described it as setting a dangerous precedent for Latin America and the
Caribbean.

Since the promulgation of
the Democratic Charter, some Latin American and Caribbean countries have
witnessed convulsions and some reversals in the democratic process. Chavez
himself was removed from power by a coup in April 2002, but was reinstated
through the action of the Venezuelan masses.

Street demonstrations in
Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia earlier this decade also led to the
toppling of elected leaders. In addition, there still exist some groups that
are not yet prepared to accept the results of democratic elections. Political
agitation involving huge crowds have led on some occasions to mob action
elsewhere, as in Guyana when opposition-led street demonstrations saw the
invasion of the president's office by a riotous throng in July 2002. And in
September 2008, Bolivia faced secessionist threats by its eastern states
controlled by rightist opposition parties, and after acts of violence occurred,
the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) played the role as mediator to
effect a shaky solution.

It can be argued that
democracy amounts to much more than holding elections; that it is also about
propelling the democratic process through, inter alia, broad national
consultation and inclusive participation, after those elections are held. The
pace may be slower in some countries due to various political and historical
factors, but that should not provide an excuse for the ousting of governments
through military coups. Surely, the army does not, and must not, have the
"divine right" to overrule the power of the national electorate.

Nevertheless, despite moves
to greater levels of democracy in the hemisphere, many of the freely elected
governments continue to face serious threats from forces which promote their
removal by non-constitutional means. Some of these forces were generally
beneficiaries of discredited dictatorial regimes and they abhor losing out to
the evolving democracy now being widely practiced. Notably, these groups have
not seen it proper to vigorously condemn the Honduran coup.

Interestingly, five years
ago, former Argentine foreign minister Dante Caputo, then director of the UN
regional project on democratic development in Latin America, wrote in the
introduction to a UN survey of democracy in 18 Latin American countries: "We
have witnessed the deepest and broadest advance of democracy since the
independence of our nations. But what has been won is by no means secure.
Democracy appears to be losing its vitality. If it becomes irrelevant to Latin
Americans, will it be able to resist the new dangers?"

Certainly, the dangers must
be resisted and all democratic political forces, in or out of government, must
apply policies and positive action to remove the brittleness from the
democratic process in the region.

The writer is Guyana's
Ambassador to Venezuela and the views expressed are solely his.