Jorge G. Castañeda
Obama is alone in the middle.
Published Dec 5, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Dec 14, 2009
From the very beginning of the Honduran crisis, back in June of this year, many observers remarked that Washington, as well as most Latin American governments, the Organization of American States, and the European Union, had painted itself into a corner. The Obama administration rightly condemned the June 28 coup d'état that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya—but also refrained from any judgment, let alone criticism, of Zelaya's bid for an unconstitutional third term, which led to his ouster. Nor did the Obama administration acknowledge that the best way out of the quagmire was to ensure that the already scheduled elections for Nov. 29 be as free and fair as possible, with the help of internation-al observers.
In consequence, the Obama administration and its allies ran the risk of betting the store on restoring Zelaya to power, through negotiations, before a vote took place. This, how-ever, led them into a conceptual trap: arguing that an illegitimate government—and the new Honduran regime clearly was one—could not hold legitimate elections. But of course it could, and did, and this is hardly surprising. How else can an illegitimate government give way to a legitimate one except by holding elections? Most of Latin America's current governments, including those of Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Bolivia, are ruled by democratic, legitimate governments elected at some point—earlier in the cases of Argentina and Uruguay, much later in the cases of Mexico and Bolivia—under the auspices of authoritarian regimes. This is also true, needless to say, of countless states in Eastern and Western Europe and in Asia and Africa.
The elections in Honduras were held under far from perfect circumstances: a de facto government, repression of Zelaya supporters, restrictions on the press, Zelaya himself under virtual house arrest in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. But two fundamental conditions of legitimacy were met. The defeated candidates all accepted the winner's victory, and the turn-out (more than 61 percent) was higher than on previous occasions, meaning that the electorate did not follow Zelaya's recommendation to abstain.
Under these conditions, it is very difficult to claim that the elections themselves were flawed. Yet Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Chile refused to recognize the results. Panama, Peru, Colombia, and Costa Rica accepted them. And the Obama administration decided that the elections were a necessary starting point for a new chapter in Honduras but weren't sufficient, insisting once again on some sort of at least pro forma Zelaya restitution. As of this writing, the United States has not been able to extricate itself from this conceptual trap, especially now that the Honduran Congress voted 111 to 14 against restoration.
The United States had in fact two real choices, and opted for neither. It could have, from the outset, when Zelaya was defenestrated, sent a high-level emissary—perhaps accompanied by Mexican and Brazilian envoys—to deliver an ultimatum to the coup perpetrators: reinstall Zelaya or face devastating consequences. Conversely, it could have chosen to insist on the electoral exit, more or less forgetting about Zelaya, and finding other ways (for example, revamping the Inter-American Democratic Charter in order to prevent future coups) to defend democracy and constitutional rule in the region. Now it finds itself somewhat isolated, unwilling to fully accept or reject the results.
There is a moral to the story. The idea that Latin America is marching steadily toward a new democratic consensus is simply silly. Latin America today is more polarized than ever. The progress made in the 1990s toward establishing democracy and human rights is in need of a second wind. And Barack Obama has to lead, not follow or impose. Washington must choose its friends and identify its adversaries. In Honduras, Obama wanted to be friends with everybody: with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, but also with Óscar Arias in Costa Rica, Republicans in the U.S. Congress, and the entire anti-Chávez group in the region. The result is a deep muddle.
Castañeda is a former foreign minister of Mexico, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
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