By William Urban
It would have been easy to miss the “military coup” in Honduras last week. Michael Jackson was all that radio, television and the print media wanted to report on. Besides, who can locate Honduras? But it was quite an event: President “Mel” Zelaya, once a conservative businessman but now a protégé of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, was determined to be reelected in spite of the constitution limiting him to one term — he claimed that only his strong leadership could eliminate crime, the drug traffic and general governmental instability. When he asked for a special referendum to amend the Constitution, his Congress refused to go along; when he announced that he was holding the referendum anyway, the Supreme Court said that it was illegal. When he proceeded with his plan, the Court ordered the military to arrest him and escort him out of the country. Once Zelaya was in neighboring Costa Rica, the Honduran Congress then appointed his legal successor as president until the fall election.
Well, all hell broke loose. You can’t do that! Military coups are the sort of thing that military dictators used to do. First came denunciations from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, then from Barack Obama (who had just announced that it was not American policy to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries—like Iran). Then came the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and practically everyone else. No one seemed to be bothered by Zelaya’s unconstitutional acts. Chavez, after threatening to send the Venezuelan army to set things right, provided an airplane that took him to New York and Washington, then circled the Honduran capital’s airport but was unable to land. He presumed that crowds would welcome him, then install him in office again. Shots were fired when the crowd tried to surge through a security fence. Zelaya landed first in Nicaragua, where troops are supposedly being prepared for war, to confer with Daniel Ortega, then in neighboring San Salvador, a nation that in 1969 had fought a war with Honduras over a soccer match. This war was more serious than it sounds, but practically everything in Central America is.
We have become accustomed to Latin American presidents coming to office with less than a majority of the votes, then pushing for radical changes, even illegal changes. First was Castro, though he hardly counts, since he seized power by overthrowing Batista (not everyone’s favorite democrat, but much like today’s strongmen who stuff the ballot boxes: “he’s an elected president!”). Then came Salvador Allende of Chile, then Ortega of Nicaragua, then Chavez, who has sponsored look-like strongmen all across the region — most notably, Boliva, Peru and Equador — and has stirred up trouble in Mexico and Columbia. To protect himself from American intervention, Chavez is buying Russian fighter aircraft and welcoming visits by Russian warships.
Our best hope of weakening this crowd is in keeping the price of oil low. It is amazing how oil seems to attract crooked autocrats; the higher the price per barrel, the greater the corruption and the propensity to make trouble (as Saddam Hussein and Iran clerics, and Saudi religious zealots have all demonstrated in various ways). Dealing with our drug problem would help, too.
So, what are we supposed to do about Honduras? It is indeed awkward when an army has to escort a president out of office. Just think how hard it was for Illinois to get rid of Blago. What is South Carolina supposed to do with Mark Sanford? — probably the same thing that Arkansas did with its philandering governor (who didn’t get into real trouble until later, when he lied to a grand jury); the same thing that the people of Massachusetts did with its politician who swam away from a sinking car and didn’t bother to tell the police until the next morning; or how the citizens of Idaho have dealt with a senator who has a “wide stance.” That is, we’ll ignore it. The Hondurans couldn’t do that. A raw grab for power has to be dealt with. If there is a mob in favor of Zelaya, there is an even bigger one ready to resist his return.
President Obama must know how disastrous it would be to send in troops to reinstall a leftist strongman who flouts the constitution and the courts — both the Left and the Right would be angry. Most likely, the president will just not invite the acting president to any photo ops at the White House. After the election in the fall we’ll pretend that nothing happened and that the president is responsible for setting it all right. Meanwhile Latin Americans are preparing to act on their own. It could be a real headache.
Review Atlas (July 13, 2009), 4.