Three weeks after the military coup in Honduras, where are we? The most encouraging signs have been the unanimous condemnation of the coup by all governments in the Americas, the resounding support President Manuel Zelaya received at the United Nations General Assembly after his speech there, and the fact that the United States has cut off $16 million in military aid to Honduras, indicating that an additional $180 million is at risk.
The most discouraging sign has been the rejection by the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti of the proposal made by Costa Rican President and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias, leading the latter to warn of the risk of civil war in Honduras. This proposal includes the return to the presidency of Mr. Zelaya, advancing the presidential elections from November 29 to October 25, and transferring control of the armed forces to the Elections Tribunal a month before the polls.
At the forefront of the search for solutions has been the Organisation of American States (OAS). It reacted swiftly, with a unanimous resolution that suspended Honduras from membership. Its Secretary-General, José Miguel Insulza (full disclosure: we were at the University of Chile Law School together, and have known each other for 40 years), took the lead in brokering these efforts, and personally visited Tegucigalpa for talks. In the negotiations led by President Arias, he is being assisted by OAS staff, including John Biehl, the OAS representative in Montevideo.
Over the past two decades, the Inter-American system in general and the OAS in particular have made enormous progress. It thus leaves behind the somewhat sorry past record of the organisation, when it condoned such nefarious acts as the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic and revelled in cheering whatever Washington was up to, often supporting some of the worst dictators.
Since 1990, and the return of democracy to the region, this has changed. At the General Assembly held in Santiago in 1991, the OAS reaffirmed its commitment to democracy in the Americas. This was formally enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, ratified by all member-states in Lima on September 11, 2001.
With the active participation of Canada, which joined the OAS in 1990, democracy promotion and monitoring has become the organisation’s hallmark. Its Democracy Promotion Unit has been on the front line of strengthening democratic institutions and practices throughout the Americas. International electoral observers have become common throughout the region (I was an OAS observer in the 1990 elections in Haiti won by Jean Bertrand Aristide).
Few regions in the world have such an elaborate and widely applied election-monitoring system as Latin America. The OAS did itself proud in the 2006 election in Haiti won by President René Preval, an occasion in which the OAS distributed voter IDs and played a key role in bringing to a successful conclusion a highly complex electoral process.
This commitment has been reinforced by the “democratic clause” extant in many regional integration mechanisms like MERCOSUR and those of regional summit schemes like the Rio Group and others. This extensive apparatus is now being put to the test.
Latin America today is very different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Its governments work together, through a variety of political cooperation mechanisms, much more than they did in the past. They are also on a much more solid economic footing, as shown in their sturdy reaction to the global recession. Today’s OAS reflects those new realities, and acts accordingly.
One of the most fascinating things about the reaction of Latin American commentators to the Honduras crisis (as opposed to that of governments, fully aware of the need to draw a line in the sand), is that it has been more about Venezuela than about Honduras. Noted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa thus writes that “Honduras was about to fall, alter Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, into the orbit of Hugo Chávez, when military intervention took place. Manuel Zelaya was the last conquest of the Venezuelan caudillo.”
This paranoid view of politics finds its mirror image in the opposing camp, which cannot find fault with anything done by President Zelaya in the weeks and months leading to his downfall. The notion that trying to understand the dynamics of what happened in Honduras amounts to “a subtle defence of military coups, and by extension, of the hateful concept of banana republics,” as Ambassador Ramírez argued in these pages (“Nothing justifies the coup d’etat in Honduras,” The Hindu, July 12, in response to my piece, which denounced the coup and called for the quick reinstatement of President Zelaya) is, of course, preposterous.
Accordingly, we should give up the analysis of political affairs and content ourselves with marching on the streets. In that view, the very act of writing becomes redundant. The main thrust of my piece is that the Inter-American community cannot allow the coup in Honduras to stand, and that it is a test case of the Western Hemisphere’s commitment against military coups. How can that be portrayed as in any way justifying the coup?
Why such an intemperate, ad hominem attack on somebody who considers himself a friend of Cuba, who has visited that country many times and who has argued in these very pages for the reintegration of Cuba into the Inter-American system, remains a mystery, for the reader to judge.
Ironically, the OAS finds itself under fire as well. The fact that in early June (coincidentally meeting in Honduras, in San Pedro Sula), the OAS General Assembly unanimously decided to lift the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership, is wielded as an example of a “double standard” the OAS would be applying today. According to this reasoning, it would do so because, on the one hand, it lifts the suspension of Cuba, and on the other, it suspends Honduran membership due to the coup.
This is mixing apples and oranges, but has given rise to savage attacks on the OAS, (described by Vargas Llosa as “persistently useless,” and an organisation that “also turns useless its Secretary-Generals, even those that, like José Miguel Insulza, seemed somewhat sharper than the rest”). Mr. Llosa calls for the U.N., the European Union, the Carter Center, Amnesty International and other such bodies to take the lead in managing any forthcoming elections in Honduras and thus guarantee a proper institutional environment and the rule of law, excluding the OAS from this endeavour.
This is madness. Within the Americas, and after enormous efforts, the nations of the continent have set up the proper structures to deal with a variety of challenges and threats to democracy. The OAS, whatever its past faults, brings together all countries of the Hemisphere (and has now opened its doors to Cuba once again; whether Cuba will take advantage of this remains to be seen). It is responding to the current Honduran crisis as best as it can. For doing so, it is being attacked by the Right, with ad hominem attacks on Secretary-General Insulza, invoking the fact that he is a Socialist and man of the Left.
Another line of attack on Mr. Insulza is that he would be catering to his constituents (the heads of government of the Americas) to ensure his re-election; his five-year term ends in 2010, and he will be standing for a second one. Jaime Daremblum of the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington DC thus accuses the OAS SG of being under “the obvious influence of automatic majorities.”
Now, isn’t that what the SG of a regional international organisation is supposed to do — pay attention to what his “bosses”, that is, the heads of the governments who elected him in the first place, want to see happen? According to this reasoning, because a majority of countries in Latin America are on the Left or Centre-Left, the OAS would be “biased” in its approach to the Honduran question.
This is reductio ad absurdum. Reducing the Honduran issue to whether one is for or against President Chávez is a grotesque, hyper-ideological way of approaching the matter. There was a coup in Honduras. This is wrong. Whether President Zelaya sympathises with President Chávez is not pertinent. He was the rightfully elected head of state and should be reinstated.
In the past, both the United States and the Organisation of American States tended to ignore (if not actively promote) military coups. The Obama administration and the current incarnation of the OAS are taking a different stance. Should they be criticised today for standing up for democracy in Honduras because in the past they did not? The manifest lack of logic in such a position should be evident to all.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. He has just completed his term as Vice-President of the International Political Science Association, whose XXI World Congress of Political Science, the largest ever, was held in his native Santiago from July 12 to 16.