Perhaps with the exception of Grenada, the Commonwealth Caribbean has been spared the curse of military coups. But elsewhere in the hemisphere, the image of the Latin American president being flown out of his country after being overthrown is a classic one. Honduras has now provided us with a new twist on an old tale: that of the deposed president trying to return to his country a week later, and being blocked from doing so by machine guns on the tarmac, in this case, of the Tegucigalpa airport.

There is an element of comic opera in all this, and we should not forget that Honduras was the country that originally gave rise to the expression 'banana republic', going back to the days when the United Fruit Company ruled the roost in Central America. But the stakes are high, the game is deadly serious and this is one of those moments when the commitment to democracy in the Americas is being tested.

The issue before the hemispheric community is a straightforward one: restore the situation ex ante, and have President Manuel Zelaya (unceremoniously taken from his home in his pajamas on June 28 and flown to Costa Rica) back in office.

Enforcement in Honduras

If the Inter-American Democratic Charter cannot be enforced in Honduras this time, it cannot be enforced anywhere. One of the great accomplishments of Latin America has been to eradicate military coups. A key to this success has been a strict enforcement of the rule that coups are not allowed, period. Once you start making exceptions, anything goes.

This does not mean that civilian, elected governments have had some sort of blank-cheque guarantee to last. In this decade alone, several presidents were forced to leave before their time was up. They were unable to deal with economic and social crises, mass demonstrations and widespread popular opposition. Although these 'falls from grace' of presidents like Fernando de la Rua in Argentina, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia and Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador, among others, were sometimes described as 'soft coups', that was not really the best term. Sometimes, governments just fall apart.

But it is one thing for a government to fall apart; it is quite another to have the generals give a helping hand, by bursting into the president's bedroom at five o'clock on a Sunday morning, manhandle him at gunpoint, put him on a plane and send him off to a neighbouring country.

In marked contrast to what happened in 2002 in the coup against President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the international community, including Washington, has unanimously condemned the coup. The Organisation of American States (OAS), often accused of being weak, has been in the forefront of the efforts to restore constitutional rule. Its Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, visited Honduras and met with a variety of players (though not with the new president, Roberto Micheletti, who is not recognised by the international community).

In a unanimous vote, by 33 to nothing, the OAS voted to suspend Honduras membership in the organisation, the first time something like this takes place since 1962, when Cuba was suspended. President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica is also mediating, looking for a way out.

Political crisis

Honduras did find itself in the midst of a political crisis. This was due to Zelaya's efforts to call for a referendum, that was set for June 28, that would have opened the possibility of a change to the Constitution in next November's elections (when Zelaya's four-year term was up), allowing the president to be re-elected.

Given the Armed Forces chief, General Romeo Vasquez, refusal to help run the referendum), Zelaya sacked him, something opposed by the Supreme Court, which proceeded to reinstate the general. The Supreme Court had earlier stated that any such referendum would be unconstitutional. In short, according to one perspective, this has been largely a mess created by Zelaya's own power-grabbing attempts.

Another explanation has been more political. Although a rancher and businessman from a conservative background, who favours a bushy moustache, cowboy hats and boots, and was elected on the ticket on the right-wing Liberal party, President Zelaya has had a change of hearts of sorts. He had the audacity to visit Cuba, to strengthen ties with Venezuela, and to actually have Honduras join ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, led by Chávez, and also formed by Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

President Zelaya did not handle his somewhat clumsy attempt at securing his re-election very adroitly. But that is neither here nor there. The country was heading directly into a political crisis, but there are constitutional mechanisms to deal with it. Some solution could have been found, either through a compromise between government and opposition, or by attempts at mediation. The notion that whenever there are differences between the executive and the legislature the way to solve them is to call the army is something that has been tried before and found wanting.

Will the international community be able to 'roll back' this coup?

The concerted multilateral actions must now be followed by 'smart sanctions', cancelling US visas to the leaders of the coup and their representatives, striking Honduras from the list of bene-ficiaries of the CAFTA-DR FTA with the United States, suspending its membership and trading privileges within the Central American Common Market, cancelling borrowing privileges at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. This is what applying the 'democracy clause' in so many hemispheric agreements is all about.

Honduras poses a true litmus test of the commitment of the hemispheric community to democratic stability. If the Inter-American Democratic Charter is not held up now, and the semi-farcical, Keystone Cops Honduran coup is not reversed, it means that much of the political progress we have seen in the region since 1990 can far too easily be undone.

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 in Waterloo, Ontario. Feedback may be sent to [email protected]


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