On June 1st 2011 the Organization of American States (OAS) – the most important regional institution which with the exception of Cuba gathers all countries of the Americas – revoked the suspension of Honduras’ membership. The exclusion had taken place only two years earlier, after President Mel Zelaya was ousted from power by a tight alliance of the military and most internal political institutions, including Congress, the Supreme Court and most political parties. This recent OAS decision has culminated the cycle of a political crisis –both national and regional– bringing to the surface important shortcomings in the making of a credible democratic trend in the region. One of the poorest and smallest countries in Latin America has paradoxically served as a showcase for both the excruciating process of making democracy a reality and the impediments of regional institutions to favor its fulfillment.
When two years earlier, the military overthrew President Zelaya and took him from his home in Costa Rica while he was still in his pajamas. Most Latin American observers expected this to be a typical coup. When the fumes of the conflict began to dissipate, it became apparent that powerful internal and international undercurrents were casting a shadow on the democratization that had started fifteen years ago.
The Honduras affair revealed several trends in the region. Political polarization lead to the lose creation of two camps. A radical, populist, left-leaning alliance including Venezuela and Brazil, and the more moderate, institution-oriented and liberal camp including Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Obama administration. The former group had attempted to bring Honduras under its influence by the hand of a then powerful oil-strong Venezuela that at the time used subsidized oil as a geopolitical weapon to attract new converts. Poor and weak, Honduras served as the weakest link in Central America. To the so-called left-leaning alliance it could serve the purpose of further isolating Mexico, a country that had abandoned its decades-long stance of neutrality toward Cuba and its rejection of most US interventions or US-supported military actions in the region. In Mexico, the political proponent of this alliance, Manuel Lopez Obrador had been defeated by a slight margin that left new president Jose Calderon in office.
To be sure, Honduras had problems of its own that led to the crisis. Contrary to some of its Central American neighbors like Nicaragua and El Salvador, its transition to democracy was closely monitored by an all powerful military establishment that managed to preserve its veto powers. So, when President Zelaya saw the opportunity to reshuffle the political establishment by calling a referendum to grant him reelection–attempted earlier with great success by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador– the alarms had been sounded, pushing toward a standoff between the executive and the rest of the political powers.
The rest is a well-known story: what began as an internal conflict with some international overtones quickly transformed into a full-blown regional issue. In the beginning of the conflict, the international response was unanimous: rejection of the “coup” and expelling the country from the OAS. Willing to translate its new rhetoric of openness toward the region into real action, the Obama administration sided with this initial approach. In due course, however, the solid Honduran internal alliance, revealing a widely held consensus against foreign involvement in the small country, held to its guns against all pressures to bring back Zelaya. No matter what measures were taken against the country, like aid-suspension by the US and regional organizations, or the actions by Zelaya himself, with tight support from Brazil and Venezuela, including several spectacular attempts at a comeback and later a month-long standoff from the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, the interim government did not comply. This led the State Department to change course. In November 2009 elections were held, which essentially showed a wide national support for the desperate attempt at an institutional recovery. One essential fact proved this correct: the abstention rate in the Presidential election was lower than when Zelaya was elected president, despite a wide campaign by the Zelaya camp. Whether the election of a new president offered new promise to resolve the conflict or not, the response of the majority of OAS members was to reject it as insufficient. Another trend the Honduran crisis revealed is the frailty of regional institutions. Regional trends such as the current Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East or the stand-off between Russia and Ukraine regarding Georgia in 2008 have shown the almost total weakness or at best the lack of mechanisms that regional organizations have, to curb crises as they take place. This has clearly been the case in the Honduran crisis. For many decades the OAS was a thinly veiled regional weapon manipulated by the US to keep potential adversaries at bay during Cold War times. Though in the early 1960s it did serve countries like Venezuela to challenge Cuba’s intervention in favor of armed revolution, the OAS quickly became little more than the preferred institutional barrier for a then paranoid US superpower to protect its “backyard”.
This somber record began to change as the seeds of democracy plowed during the mid-1980s started taking roots in a continent for decades known as the showcase of dictators of all stripes –typically with US support. Against the backdrop of such negative tradition, the OAS attempted the impossible: to turn the slate clean and project a new blueprint for democracy. The process began with a proposed Democratic Charter, which was initially discussed in a gathering of presidents taking place in Canada in year 2000. Despite minor objections (especially from Venezuela regarding the shortcomings of representative democracy) the Charter was approved in a General Assembly meeting in 2001.
Given the military coup d’etat tradition in the continent, the core of the Charter has been the defense of elected presidents. Unfortunately it did not fully consider new authoritarian variants such as President Fujimori’s overhaul of other republican institutions in the 1990s, and failed attempts to follow suit in other countries. Nor did it establish mechanisms to monitor violations or incomplete applications of the Charter. The experience of Honduras has proved that extreme measures, such as eviction from the OAS, are ineffective. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the region, expulsion from the OAS did not involve enough economic pressure for Honduras’ interim leadership to give back the presidency. The fact that it has been reinstated as a full member after a political agreement shows that holding elections briefly after the coup was an important step in the right direction. However, the long list of human rights violations, including assassination of journalists and human rights advocates, as well as the closing of local TV and broadcasting stations and the outright harassment of Zelaya’s supporters, remain unsolved cases. It seems that the prosecution of such violations has been sacrificed at the altar of preserving a “greater good”, i.e., that of protecting elected presidents. It is for this reason that more than once the OAS has been dubbed “a club of presidents.”
Unfortunately, though the recent decision to bring back Honduras to the organization is a correction of a wrong course, it also reinforces a trend in the region whereby outright violations of democratic norms like freedom of the press, or the use of the judicial system to persecute political adversaries, as has occurred many times in Venezuela, or the use of the executive powers to eliminate opposition in Congress or in the judicial system, as is the case in Ecuador, have been relegated to minor infractions, while enforcing the elected president’s right to retain office no matter what has become a major priority.