Honduras Welcomes Zelaya Back: Time for Banana Republic Reform

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So in the end, the coup crisis that rocked Honduras and the western hemisphere two years ago was apparently all just a big misunderstanding. Everybody just got a little constitutionally crazy, but they’ve ironed it out and former President Manuel Zelaya, whom the Honduran military hauled into exile at gunpoint the morning of June 28, 2009, can come on home now. The Honduran Congress has long since given legal immunity to everyone responsible for the coup, despite the violence committed against Zelaya supporters; and the Supreme Court has wiped Zelaya’s slate clean, despite his own affronts to the rule of law. No matter; we can all look forward to Honduras’ bright democratic future.

But that’s not going to happen unless both sides of the 2009 meltdown recognize how badly they reinforced Honduras’ reputation as Latin America’s archetypal banana republic. And frankly, there’s scant evidence that they do. Yes, it’s important that Honduras be able to reclaim its membership in hemispheric bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS); and the agreement that allows Zelaya to return, brokered by Colombia and Venezuela and signed on Sunday, May 22, in Cartagena, will let it do that. But it’s also important that Honduras get its benighted act together so that it – and so many other dysfunctional Latin American nations where democratic crises can still erupt – don’t put the region through a repeat of 2009.

Let’s start with Zelaya, since he’s the guy who started the crisis. Zelaya was a mediocre President at best, a wealthy rancher turned leftist who spooked Honduras’ oligarchic elite by cozying up to socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Still, he sought to improve conditions for the 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty, and in 2009 he announced a nonbinding referendum asking voters if they thought a constitutional reform assembly should be convened. Problem is, the Supreme Court ruled he was going about it improperly and ordered him to cease. But, as so many Latin American leaders are still wont to do, Zelaya put populism before constitutionalism and defied the high court. His opponents could have tried him for that breach, won a conviction, thrown him out and basked in international applause for doing the democratic thing.

Instead they too did the banana republic thing. Rather than mess with the inconvenience of a proper impeachment, the Congress – led then by bullheaded Roberto Micheletti, a conservative Roman Catholic who claimed to be guided by God – decided it could oust Zelaya immediately by declaring he’d violated Article 239 of the Constitution, which says any President who tries to alter the charter to allow re-election (Honduran Presidents may only serve one four-year term) shall automatically forfeit the office. Nice try, but Zelaya’s plebiscite never mentioned presidential re-election; Micheletti and company simply assumed that because Chávez had earlier won a Venezuelan referendum allowing indefinite presidential re-election, that was Zelaya’s intent as well.

Still, as if on nostalgic cue, Honduran military leaders put the banana icing on the cake by sending troops to drag Zelaya out of bed and fly him off to Costa Rica. Micheletti was declared interim President, thumbing his nose at the international community’s insistence that Zelaya be brought back to serve the remaining six months of his term. Even the U.S., in a departure from its ugly past support of anti-leftist coups in the region, initially voiced that demand. But Micheletti won. By November 2009, the Obama Administration, under pressure from conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress, had agreed to recognize the results of a new presidential election even if Zelaya weren’t restored to office.

A coup against a democratically elected President, a Latin American scourge we thought ended with the Cold War, had once again succeeded. As a result, we got to see how vulnerable the region’s fledgling democracies still are in the 21st century. Trigger-happy militaries in neighboring countries like Guatemala could only grin.

Since then, Honduras’ democracy hasn’t looked much brighter. As an echo of Micheletti’s heavy-handed crackdown on the media during the crisis, journalists have been under assault in Honduras: more than 10 were murdered last year alone, yet the courts and the government of new President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo have largely, and incredibly, dismissed the possibility the victims were targeted for their work. Some of the victims supported the coup, however, which casts suspicion on Zelaya militants as well. Add the cynical way the Honduran Congress has absolved Micheletti and the military – and the cavalier way the Supreme Court cleared Zelaya of his own alleged wrongdoing to make way for his return and Honduras’ renewed OAS membership – and you don’t find a country that’s learned a lot from the annus horribilis of 2009.

Lobo claims to be re-establishing democratic process in Honduras; and he insists the new “Christian humanist” agenda of his conservative National Party is out to bring social justice to the country’s feudal system. Let’s hope he does all that. In an interview before his election in November 2009, he conceded to me that “Central America has actually gone backward” in the 21st century. “We have an utter lack of vision about who we are and how to order ourselves.” Now that Zelaya is coming home and Honduras has declared the crisis behind it, it’s time for the banana republic to move forward for a change.