Honduras has put Canada on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, this has been the first overt, no-holds-barred military coup in Latin America in many years. The inter-American system, through the Organization of American States (OAS), reacted swiftly, unanimously suspending Honduras as a member – the first country to be so sanctioned since Cuba in 1962.
The Obama administration has condemned the coup and has not recognized the new government headed by Roberto Micheletti (leading the latter's foreign minister, Oscar Ortiz, to say, "this little black boy doesn't know anything"). Sanctions are being applied, ambassadors are being withdrawn, the democratic clause in regional treaties is being applied, U.S. visas for high-ranking Honduran government officials are being cancelled. For once, Washington, Latin America and the broader international community see eye-to-eye on one issue. The new government would not be able to hold out for much longer – there are only so many weeks the Honduran elite can manage without any Miami shopping sprees.
On the other hand, some five weeks after the June 28 coup, there is increasing pressure from Republican congressmen in Washington and from conservative sectors in Latin America to search for a "compromise," one that would avoid reinstating the ousted president. The argument is that President Manuel Zelaya largely provoked the coup himself by pushing for an unconstitutional referendum; by deposing the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vásquez; and by otherwise improperly seeking a second term in office. His own actions vitiated his democratic legitimacy and, thus, justified his ouster.
Moreover, this argument goes, the coup should be placed within the broader setting of the looming threat posed by chavismo, the movement headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. As Honduran Gen. Miguel Angel García put it in justifying the coup, this is a far more sinister menace than we had realized: "Central America was not the objective of this communism disguised as democracy ... This socialism, communism, chavismo, we would call it, was headed to the heart of the United States."
The OAS, whose secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, has taken the lead in demanding Zelaya be restored to office, and has refused to meet with Micheletti, has taken the brunt of this emerging criticism. His strong stance is being portrayed as "undiplomatic," simply reflecting the majority will of Latin American governments rather than "doing the right thing." Moreover, he is criticized for being too forceful now after allegedly having turned a blind eye to previous threats to democracy elsewhere – in last year's municipal elections in Nicaragua or in Venezuela's attempts at curbing press freedom.
According to this curious logic, by standing against the Honduras coup the OAS and its head are failing to defend the cause of democracy in the Americas, whose real enemies are the Zelayas and not the Michelettis of this world.
Canadian companies like Gildan in garments and Goldcorp in mining are present in Honduras, where total Canadian investment is $110 million and bilateral trade $238 million. A free-trade agreement is being negotiated. At $16.4 million a year, Honduras is also the second largest recipient of Canada's foreign aid in the hemisphere, after Haiti.
But Canada has also invested a great deal in the OAS itself, which it joined in 1990, as well as in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, ratified in Lima in 2001, which puts military coups out of bounds. Canada chaired the OAS Permanent Council at the time of the coup, and took a leading role in the swift reaction to it, and its condemnation. Peter Kent, Canada's minister of state for the Americas, while demanding the reinstatement of Zelaya (with whom he has spoken) has also asked countries not to impose sanctions while negotiations are going on, and Canada has not done so.
The true significance of the coup, in one of the poorest and weakest countries in the hemisphere (per-capita income is $1,900), lies in the test it poses to the inter-American system. If the latter cannot succeed in restoring democracy in Honduras, it cannot do so anywhere. The message would thus be crystal clear: coup-makers can act with impunity.
There is a legitimate argument to be made for the OAS to play a more proactive role in preventing anti-democratic encroachments by the executive into other branches of government. Disturbing developments in that direction deserve attention. The way the Chávez government has interfered with the established powers of mayors and governors from the opposition is one such case. The alleged fraud in the mayoral elections in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, last November, is another. However, that would require changes in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. At present, it requires significant majorities of the member countries for such initiatives, something unlikely to happen.
Nonetheless, that is not the issue right now. There is a qualitative difference between a military coup and institutional imperfections of various sorts, including executive power grabs, of which North America is not immune. The two should not be confused. And the argument that chavismo has replaced comunismo as the greatest threat to the Americas, including the United States, would be laughable if it were not used seriously by Honduran generals to engage in golpismo.
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Presidents Obama and Calderón (who has just hosted Zelaya in Mexico City) at the NAFTA summit in Guadalajara today and tomorrow, he has a great opportunity to contribute to a NAFTA pro-democracy, anti-military coup consensus and press for Zelaya's quick reinstatement. The 11-point plan submitted by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica provides an excellent starting point, giving guarantees to all parties.
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. His latest book (with Andrew F. Cooper), Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.