The news that a "deal" may be in the works to return former Honduran President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya to office is a defeat for democratic order and rule of law in the Americas. [Full disclosure: I helped a Honduran business delegation travel to Washington in July 2009 to brief U.S. policymakers on the crisis there.] Tiny Honduras has been bludgeoned by the international community -- including the United States -- into effectively violating its own constitution and trampling its own political processes by reinstating this would-be autocrat, despite formal charges against him for acts of fraud, treason, and abuse of power that no serious observer disputes.
For decades, U.S. policy towards Latin America has been to work with our neighbors to supplant "rule of the strongman" with rule of law and fealty to constitutional processes. So how is it that now the United States is advocating the complete reversal of a long-standing bipartisan policy approach in our hemisphere? Unfortunately, the Obama administration's slow response to the deposing of Zelaya -- despite the crisis building in Honduras over the past year - allowed the ever-opportunistic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to exploit the situation by portraying himself as the defender of "democracy" in the region by demanding his ally Zelaya's immediate return to power.
For an Obama administration seemingly following a reflexive "Anything But Bush" policy in the region, there was thus little option but to take the same side as Chavez and Fidel Castro -- not exactly the side to be on when the issues are democratic order and rule of law in the Americas. What the Administration should have done is support Honduras' democratic institutions in their removal of a rogue president and help the country prepare for the previously scheduled Presidential elections on Nov. 29 (with the formal transfer of power to occur in January 2010), after which interim President Roberto Micheletti would step down and constitutional order would prevail.
The stakes in Honduras couldn't be higher. For the first time since Hugo Chavez led a succession of neo-populists into power in the region, leaders who immediately set about undermining separation of powers and aggrandizing control in the executive, a polity has stood up and, acting within its own legal boundaries, basically rejected such a future for themselves. By siding with the Honduran people in this crisis, the United States could have done much to deflate Chavismo in the region. It is a missed opportunity that will come back to haunt us.
As for the present, given Zelaya's confrontational and reckless behavior since being removed from the country -- buzzing the capital in an aircraft and sneaking back into the country to take up residence in the Brazilian Embassy and exhort his followers into the streets -- his remaining days in power are unlikely to be quiet and uneventful. The Honduran people deserve better, as do all struggling democrats in the Americas.
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.