Guest Columns

SMITH: WHY WAS THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION SO SLOW?

Hondurans use their weapon, the vote

"Our weapon is the vote,” a man named Randolfo tells me.

We are standing outside a school called La Vida Abundante in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It is Sunday, Nov. 29, Election Day, and this is one of the polling places.

I was in Honduras in July, right after the removal of President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, which I wrote about in a Sept. 25 column. I am now here again to observe the elections. This will be a vital process for the credibility of this tiny (half the size of Colorado) country, with its 7.5 million impoverished people.

­Outside each classroom is a list of all the people who are to vote there.

Inside, representatives of the five political parties check the IDs of voters and give them three ballots: one for the presidential race, one for the mayoral race and one for the congressional races (which is more complicated because each voter can vote for up to 23 candidates).

The voters then place their completed ballots in one of three ballot boxes or “urnas.” When the polls close, a count is made and then called in to the central voting headquarters on a special cell phone. This simple, low-tech process turns out to be amazingly effective in handling a larger-than-expected turnout of more than 60 percent.

Ballot for the Honduran presidential race: The voter puts an “x” in the white space below.
Photo courtesy Morgan Smith

Unlike Nicaragua, which held closed elections a year ago, Honduras sought outside observers. There were more than 3,000 scattered around the country. Some 600 came from at least 31 countries outside of Honduras.

Having run for office four times myself and having observed many elections in Colorado, as well as in Mexico and Nicaragua, I can say that I’ve never seen anything as well-organized, transparent and peaceful. As the Washington Senior Observer Group stated, it was “a free, fair and transparent voting process conducted by committed and conscientious citizens.”

Hondurans wanted to show the world that Honduras is committed to fairness, transparency and democracy. They also wanted to move on from the confrontation over the removal of Mel Zelaya in late June.

For months, the news about Honduras was dominated by Zelaya’s removal, the erroneous insistence of far too many countries (including the U.S.) to call this a military coup, and the decision of interim President Roberto Micheletti and the Honduran Congress to stand up to international pressure and refuse to allow Zelaya back into the country. (Zelaya did sneak back into the country, thanks to the government of Brazil, and is now stuck in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

Leading up to the election, there was almost no mention of the two principal candidates — Porfirio “Pepe” Lopez and Elvin Santos — even though they were selected prior to and independently from the process of removing Zelaya.

Liberal Party supporters outside a polling place. When people go to vote or demonstrate, the whole family is usually involved.
Photo courtesy Morgan Smith

On Election Day, however, that all changed. Zelaya was essentially a forgotten man. All people could talk about were the two principal candidates, Lopez and Santos and, even more so, the tremendously successful electoral process.

Tiny Honduras has historically been dominated by the United States. When you step out of the Tegucigalpa airport and see the array of American fast food restaurants or go into a store and see all the U.S. products, our influence is clear.

In this case, however, Hondurans stood up to the Obama administration as well as to the governments of an overwhelming number of Latin American and European countries. During my July visit to Honduras, I wondered if Roberto Micheletti’s interim government would eventually give in to international pressure, but it didn’t. And now, as many Hondurans said to me, Honduras is the first country to defeat Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the man who manipulated Zelaya and caused him to go completely off course and violate his country’s laws.

Fortunately, the United States finally changed its position and has recognized the legitimacy of the election. In the end, there are some lessons to be learned.

1. Our officials in Honduras were caught completely off guard by Zelaya’s removal. If this can happen in a country where we have such a long history, how can we ever expect to understand what is really going on in places like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan?

2. Our foreign policy should reflect who are our friends and who are our enemies. Why, in this case, were we so quick to take the side of the anti-American Hugo Chávez? And why have we — Democrats especially — been so reluctant to lend a hand to someone like Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, who has been such a strong U.S. supporter?

3. Nonetheless, despite much lingering resentment toward the U.S. in Latin America, it was the United States that everyone turned to for a solution. Chávez was totally ineffectual. Can we capitalize on that?

On Monday night, a small caravan of cars and trucks with flags waving and horns blowing surged through Tegucigalpa’s narrow streets. It was the last gasp of La Resistencia, Mel Zelaya’s few remaining supporters. It blocked traffic temporarily and then disappeared. And on Tuesday, the Honduran Congress voted 111-14 against restoring Zelaya to power for the remaining weeks of his term. In addition, his key supporters have announced that they are moving on to other issues.

Now Honduras can move on. Let’s hope we’ve all learned a lesson in the process.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado General Assembly and as Director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He travels extensively in Latin America.