Mel’s back. Yes, the ousted president of Honduras has somehow snuck back into his country and is now holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, from which he is once again stirring up his supporters.
After three months of fuzzy thinking and failed negotiations, our State Department is finally facing its moment of truth. While this Honduran saga may seem like just a soap opera to many Americans, it’s a deadly serious test of our credibility in Latin America.
First, some history.
Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, a member of the Liberal Party, was elected president of Honduras in November 2005. Although Zelaya is a wealthy rancher and landowner, he soon began moving towards a leftist, authoritarian Hugo Chávez-style presidency.
For example, earlier this year he abruptly announced an increase of more than 60 percent in the minimum wage. Honduras is in a deep recession, and, as a result of his effort to appease the poor, thousands of workers were laid off.
He then attempted to start a referendum process to allow him to run for another term as president — an extremely sensitive issue, given Latin America’s history of caudillo-type leaders who try to maintain power forever. Any efforts to do that are sharply curtailed by the Honduran Constitution.
Therefore, both the Honduran Congress (the only governmental entity that can initiate such a referendum) and its Supreme Court said “no.” (Incidentally, Zelaya’s Liberal Party has a majority in both the Congress and the Supreme Court.)
Zelaya then ordered the commanding general of the military simply to distribute the ballots. The general also said “no.” Zelaya fired him.
Although Zelaya was warned by the attorney general that further attempts to distribute ballots would result in arrests, he had his people attempt to take the ballots from the military headquarters, where they had been stored, and distribute them.
That was when the Supreme Court ordered Zelaya’s arrest.
In a technical legal sense, the next step probably should have been to detain Zelaya in Honduras. As a practical matter, however, the country was in turmoil. The Supreme Court decided, therefore, to direct the military to remove him from the country in order to avoid riots and bloodshed.
Following the removal of Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, the president of the Congress, was named interim president of Honduras. Micheletti is not a candidate in the elections that will take place this November and will serve only until the newly elected president takes office.
The candidates for the presidency are in place; they had been selected through a primary process that occurred prior to Zelaya’s removal. This electoral process seems to be entirely separate from the Zelaya issue and completely untainted by whatever one might think about the legitimacy of his removal.
To me, this seems like a logical process; to call it a “military coup” is wildly inaccurate.
In July, I went to Honduras and asked dozens of Hondurans — businesspeople, waiters and restaurant staff, unemployed members of a mariachi band, taxi drivers, students, people in the central plaza, teachers, hotel staff, an itinerant preacher and street musicians — about their opinions. These were basically working people (as opposed to political activists), and most of them were poor. To my surprise, most of them claimed to have voted for Zelaya in 2005.
It came as an additional surprise when I didn’t find one person who supported Zelaya. In fact, their complaints went far beyond the referendum issue that we’ve been reading about and included growing anger about millions of dollars he has illegally withdrawn from the Central Bank of Honduras, about the extent to which he is allowing himself to be manipulated by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and about allegations that Zelaya’s people were involved in drug trafficking with Venezuela.
Most important, the Hondurans I spoke to were proud to have taken action against a leader who, they believe, was violating the law. As one student told me, “A president shouldn’t be able to win election and then think he can do whatever he wants.”
Hondurans feel that they have taken an enormous step in challenging a leader who was violating their law and creating a climate of fear and chaos in their country. I believe they should be given a chance to state their case.
Since my visit, Zelaya has twice violated the conditions of the mediation process initiated by Hillary Clinton and being run by Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica. First, he set up camp on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border and encouraged his supporters to mobilize there. Unfortunately, he made no provisions for food, water and their other basic needs while they were there.
And now he’s back in Honduras, holed up in the Brazilian Embassy and, once again, inciting his followers.
Honduras is tiny — less than half the size of Colorado — with 7.5 million people whose average per capita income is only $1,700 per year. But it offers an important test for the United States and its policies. Having been too quick to support Zelaya initially, we must now make sure that he doesn’t create chaos. Then we have to recognize the legitimacy of Honduras’ upcoming elections and allow this struggling country to move ahead.
Looking at the larger picture, it’s worth remembering that Latin America has a total population of more than 530 million people, is a huge source of trade and is deeply intertwined with the United States on such critical issues as immigration and drugs. In order to develop a coherent policy to deal with those issues and to regain credibility in the region, we need to understand who our opponents are. One is Hugo Chávez, who has consistently been Zelaya’s mentor. We also need to recognize and reward those who support us — such as Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia.
The fact that there are other issues on the table — the economy, health care reform, Afghanistan — doesn’t justify ignoring or miscalculating Latin American issues.
Morgan Smith is a former state legislator, commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He travels extensively in Latin America.