Opinion

Commentary: Honduras coup should serve as a wake-up call

Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya speaks during a news conference after a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington early Wednesday, July 1, 2009. A defiant Roberto Micheletti said in an interview with The Associated Press late Tuesday that "no one can make me resign," defying the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Obama administration and other leaders that have condemned the military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya speaks during a news conference after a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington early Wednesday, July 1, 2009. A defiant Roberto Micheletti said in an interview with The Associated Press late Tuesday that "no one can make me resign," defying the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Obama administration and other leaders that have condemned the military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Associated Press

Once the dust settles from the military coup in Honduras, there's likely to be negotiations between the interim government and regional leaders, leading to early elections where ousted President Manuel Zelaya would be allowed back but barred from running for office.

Right now, all sides are saying that's unacceptable. Don't believe them.

On Monday, after Honduras' suspension from the 34-country Organization of American States and Zelaya's dramatic but unsuccessful attempt to return home, it seemed like the two sides couldn't be further apart. Interim President Roberto Micheletti looked prepared to negotiate anything except Zelaya's return as president, while OAS member countries appeared ready to negotiate everything, as long as Zelaya returns to power.

But they're running out of time. Micheletti needs to restore the Honduran government's political legitimacy before the November presidential elections to have their outcome recognized by other nations. Zelaya, in turn, needs to return home under a political agreement that would allow him to play a role in the upcoming elections, even if he can't run, so that he doesn't fade into oblivion.

In an interview Monday afternoon, as he was returning to Washington from Central America, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza told me he will continue talks to bring the two sides closer.

"It is my duty to continue diplomatic efforts to restore democratic normalcy in Honduras," Insulza said. "All options are open to conversation, but the only thing that we can't accept is that the president doesn't return to the country as president."

OAS officials say that not only Venezuela and its leftist allies, but also Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries that endured military dictatorships are not likely to recognize the outcome of November elections if they are convened by the current interim government. To do so, he said, would amount to legitimizing the removal of a president by a coup.

So a possible negotiated solution, some say, would be allowing Zelaya to return to office – either alone or as part of a national unity government – under a regionally supervised deal that would prevent him from violating the constitution by seeking reelection, as he was doing before his ouster, and that would grant an amnesty to all officials on both sides of the conflict.

My opinion: I wouldn't be surprised if the political crisis in Honduras is resolved within the next three months. But the Honduran military coup should serve as a wake-up call for all nations in the hemisphere to react more swiftly to the constant violations of the rule of law in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and not wait for the situations to blow up, like in Honduras.

There is no doubt that Latin American countries and the United States did well to condemn the coup. Had they remained silent or tacitly condoned the events, they would have set a disastrous precedent for the entire continent.

But it is also true that the same countries that today raise their voices in indignation because of the events in Honduras said not a word when Zelaya publicly ignored the decisions of the Supreme Court, the Congress and the country's prosecutor general, who had ruled that his attempt to call a referendum to allow his reelection was illegal.

Where were OAS member countries when Zelaya disobeyed the Supreme Court? And where are they when Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who began his political career as a coup-plotting army officer, closed television channels, as he did with RCTV two years ago, or when he disregarded the outcome of elections, as he did recently with the opposition mayor of Caracas, or prevented hundreds of opposition leaders from running for public office, as he did with the referendum of 2008?

It is true that the Chávez-led ALBA group of leftist-populist presidents are not the only ones to do this. Others, including Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, are flirting with a new reelection, although it is not yet clear if they will go down that path.

But Chávez and his allies clothe themselves in democracy when it's convenient and ignore it daily when they can get away with it. And let's not even talk about Cuban President Raúl Castro, who had the nerve to appear in a photograph with the presidents of the Rio Group, denouncing the military coup in Honduras, when he himself presides over a military dictatorship that has not permitted elections in five decades.

Once a negotiated solution is reached in Honduras, it would be a good idea to review the OAS system of collective defense of democracy in the region, which has been increasingly weakened over the past 10 years. If the OAS doesn't address presidential abuses, as well as abuses against presidents, it will become a society of mutual protection for authoritarian leaders.

And if the governments remain mute in the face of increasingly authoritarian presidents, they will not have learned the lesson of Honduras, and we shall see a return to the dark past of military coups in Latin America.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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