Guest Columns

SMITH: COUNTRIES CLOSE TO BORDER CONTINUE TO DESTABILIZE

Honduran elections provide opportunity to forge America’s strategy in Latin America

The Colorado Statesman

Honduras is a tiny Central American country of eight million people but its Nov. 24 presidential elections offer some important lessons about our role in Latin America, the impact of drugs and violence, and the factors that make a country viable.

Although the conservative candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez has been declared the winner, it’s hard to say whether we should send congratulations or condolences because Xiomara Castro, the second place candidate, is crying fraud; she and her husband, the constantly disruptive former President Mel Zelaya have already started street protests.

Zelaya was elected president in 2005 but removed from office in June of 2009 because he had repeatedly defied members of his party who held a majority in the Congress, the Attorney General and the Supreme Court by attempting to run for a second term, something clearly prohibited by the Honduran Constitution. The Supreme Court finally directed the military to remove him from office and they took him to Costa Rica.

That process was immediately condemned, even initially by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a drastic error in my opinion because Honduran officials clearly followed the law with one possible exception — removing Zelaya from the country rather than detaining him in Honduras. From a practical point of view, however, that was a wise move because detaining him within Honduras would have led riots and bloodshed. Nonetheless this created a forum for Zelaya and he is now using Castro, his wife, to further disrupt this already very unstable country.

Honduran President Mel Zelaya, left, in Denver a few months before his removal from office in 2009.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

I was there right after the removal of Zelaya and again during their November 2009 elections, and what I saw was extremely impressive.

First, the various governmental entities there acted courageously in removing Zelaya; almost everyone I interviewed agreed. This contrasts with neighboring Nicaragua where President Daniel Ortega has manipulated the Supreme Court and the Constitution to allow himself to be president three times and is now working to perpetuate himself even longer. With all due respect to the Nicaraguan people, they have not been willing to stand up to a dictator the way the Hondurans have.

On Election Day in 2009, I visited a number of polling places and saw one of the most transparent and fair elections I have ever observed. The international observers agreed. The winner, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo would later come to Denver via a program put together by Gil Cisneros, the very capable president of the Chamber of the Americas and we all predicted better times for Honduras.

It was not to be. This is the sixth poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Guyana and Bolivia with an unemployment rate of about 25 percent. Most important, the murder rate, which has doubled in the last six years, is 91.6 homicides per year per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, making it the most dangerous country in the world by a wide margin. The second most dangerous county, El Salvador has a rate of 69.2. Neighboring Guatemala is at 38.5, making these three countries in northern Central America the most dangerous area in the world.

In contrast, Mexico is at 23.7 and the U.S. at 4.7. Nicaragua to the south is only 12.6.

It’s dangerous for us to have this trio of very dangerous countries next to already troubled Mexico and so close to us. What can be done?

First, Mexico’s drug war has pushed some of the cartels south to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras where the governments are weaker and less able to enforce the laws. Too often combatting drugs in one country simply means pushing them somewhere else. What is needed is a new strategy; our decades-long “War on Drugs” clearly hasn’t worked. This is our problem as well as a Honduran problem because we’re the ones who create the demand for drugs.

Second, although we place great value on democratic values like fair elections, personal safety is much more important. That’s why Nicaragua with its totally corrupt electoral process is a better place to live than Honduras with its well-run elections. In the last six years, my wife, Julie and I have taken eight groups to Nicaragua to support various humanitarian groups there and have always felt that we were completely safe.

Third, we Americans are increasingly out of touch. Embassy officials are isolated in fortress-like embassies and have less and less contact with local people. Press coverage is also much more limited. For example, in 2009 I met an NPR reporter from Mexico City whose job was to cover all of Mexico plus Central America!

It may be too much to hope that Mel Zelaya and Xiomara Castro will drop their protests and allow for some political calm in Honduras. Regardless, we have to find a new way to deal with drugs and also offer whatever support we can to help Honduras bring a sense of safety to its citizens. We can’t afford the continuing destabilization of countries so close to our border and so deeply affected by our policies.

Morgan Smith is a former state representative and writes frequently on Latin America issues. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.