This past week, the media has made a crack in its myopic coverage of Michael Jackson to give us a few peeks of the situation in Honduras, which is fast becoming another foreign policy test of the Obama administration.
Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya was attempting to hold a national referendum to create an assembly to amend the constitution, in order to remove term limits on the president. Currently, Honduran presidents can only serve one 4-year term, and Zelaya’s term is set to expire early next year. Taking a page from the playbook of his friend Hugo Chavez on how to gradually abolish democracy, Zelaya wanted this gone.
The problem is, Article 373 of the Honduran constitution says that the section on term limits cannot be amended. What’s more, all amendments to the Constitution must come from Congress, not by referendum. In fact, under article 42, promoting a president’s re-election or an extension of his term is grounds for the courts to strip that person of their citizenship.
The Supreme Court of Honduras ruled that Zelaya’s referendum was illegal and ordered the ballots seized. The military is in charge of running elections and securing polling places in Honduras, and Zelaya tried to fire the commander of the military for refusing to carry out his orders. The Supreme Court then ruled that Zelaya could not fire the commander for refusing to carry out an illegal order.
Zelaya then gathered together a force of armed followers, broke into a military base where his ballots were being held under police guard, stole them and planned to hold his referendum anyways. Congress moved to remove him from office with strong support fro Zelaya’s own party, but the Honduran constitution lacks a clear impeachment clause. At this point, the Supreme Court stepped in again, and ordered that Zelaya be arrested.
The military carried out the order, raided Zelaya’s house, seized him and put him on a one-way plane trip to Costa Rica. A legal succession was quickly established. The Vice President had resigned last December in order to run for the Presidency, so President of Congress Roberto Micheletti (who is of the same party as Zelaya) assumed power in accordance with Article 242 of the constitution.
Having the military remove the president from power is obviously not the ideal situation for any country to face, however, there is not much else that Honduras could have done. Their president was engaging in flagrantly illegal behavior and had been given repeated opportunities to cease this behavior. He persisted. The Honduran Supreme Court, Congress and military were left with the choice of either sitting by and watching Zelaya dismantle Honduran democracy, or taking drastic action.
Despite this, most Latin American nations have condemned Zelaya’s removal. Predictably, his leftist-socialist allies such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega were quick to condemn, with Chavez even promising military action to return Zelaya to power. The Organization of American States has given Honduras 3 days to return Zelaya to power or be suspended from the organization, and the UN General Assembly has voted to condemn the new Honduran government.
The Obama administration has joined them. According to Obama, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there. It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections. The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions. … We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”
While it is certainly true that Central America has had many military coups in its past, Obama doesn’t seem concerned about President Zelaya’s threat to Honduran democratic traditions. While this method of changing the government may not be the wisest thing to have legally available, it apparently is legal under Honduran law.
This incident raises some disturbing questions about Obama’s foreign policy in Latin America.
Since his election, Obama has greatly improved relations with Hugo Chavez. Perhaps sensing that the new American president is more ideologically amenable to populist socialism, Chavez has toned down his anti-American rhetoric and has even said that he wants to be Obama’s friend.
Obama sees it has his mission to restore America’s image in the world, an image that he believes Bush tarnished. As a result, he wants to build friendly relations with the governments of other countries, regardless of who is in charge. This means he will be steadfastly opposed to “regime changes”, because it is hard to build friendly relations with governments that think you are trying to undermine them.
In practice, this means Obama will support proto-dictators such as Chavez and Zelaya, and even bloody-handed killers such as Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega. He will ignore or even oppose pro-democracy movements, for these are sometimes a threat to the corrupt establishment that Obama wants to befriend.
Sometimes, supporting a dictatorial regime is an unfortunate necessity, such as our alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II. However, in this case, we have a clear choice which is not being influenced by other major geopolitical factors such as a more immediately threatening tyranny.
In the past, the left has justifiably criticized the US in the past for supporting dictatorial governments in Latin America. Now, Obama is doing the same thing, all in the name of re-building America’s respect. Instead, it will lead to America being respected by the wrong people. Rather than restoring America’s image, this will lead to the moral decline of American leadership in the world.