It would be tempting for Washington to dismiss Sunday morning's military overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya as just a minor banana-republic convulsion. But the Obama Administration doesn't have that luxury. Zelaya is a member of the club of left-wing Latin American leaders and its honcho, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has already deemed this a hemispheric crisis that will challenge the new north-south bonhomie President Barack Obama established two months ago at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Less than an hour after Honduran military aircraft had whisked Zelaya into apparent forced exile in Costa Rica, Chávez was accusing the CIA of having a hand in his ouster. "The Yanqui empire," he said, "has much to do" with what he called "this troglodyte coup."
Obama, as he's done this past month with Iran, will have to take special care to convince the hemisphere, if not the world, that the reality is just the opposite. Sunday morning, he called on "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," insisting that the crisis "must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference." It was a good start as was the announcement by Obama's ambassador in Honduras later in the day that the U.S. will not recognize any government installed to replace Zelaya. Chávez himself led an aborted military coup in 1992, before he was elected Venezuela's President in 1998. But Obama needs to remember how sorely the memory of a failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez still lingers in Latin America and how convinced the region remains (not without reason) that the Bush Administration backed it. As a result, Obama may find that while he'd like to be the voice of dialogue, Latin leaders of all political stripes are likely to exhort him to come down hard on what Zelaya called the "kidnapping" of a democratically elected President.
That clamor will be especially loud if reports are true that Honduran soldiers also rounded up the ambassadors of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and other leftist Latin governments, drove them to an air-force base and roughed them up before apparently releasing them. It would be a haunting reminder of the kind of benighted behavior that marked military takeovers in Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries putsches that were too often aided by Washington until democratic government became the norm after the Cold War. And it would all but nullify any justification that Honduras' epauletted brass as well as the Supreme Court, which reportedly ordered Zelaya's arrest this morning thought it had for the uprising.
Those forces have now turned Zelaya, an otherwise middling President, into the same sort of political martyr Chávez became seven years ago. Their dispute with Zelaya, in fact, arose from their fear that he was making a bid to become another Chávez. Earlier this year, Chávez, a democratically elected President who has enfranchised Venezuela's poor but has been widely criticized for undermining the nation's other branches of government, won a referendum that lets him seek re-election indefinitely. (Other Latin Presidents, like Bolivia's Evo Morales, have also pushed through constitutional changes allowing them to seek additional terms.) Zelaya, whose term ends early next year (he's limited to one), had hoped to hold an informal, nonbinding plebiscite on Sunday to gauge whether Hondurans want to change their national charter and allow, among other things, more than one term for Presidents. But the Supreme Court last week ruled the Sunday vote illegal; the Congress, where Zelaya loyalists are a minority, and the attorney general rejected it as well.
Zelaya vowed to hold the referendum anyway, insisting that Honduras' grinding poverty stemmed from a constitution written in 1982 at the height of that country's brutal repression of leftists that rigs the game for the most powerful families and interests. When his military chief, citing the Supreme Court ruling, said last week that the armed forces opposed the vote, Zelaya had him fired. The Congress then began deliberations over whether Zelaya was still mentally fit to govern.
In the end, though, it was Zelaya's opponents who appear to have become unhinged. Technically before Sunday, anyway Honduras' Justices and generals could claim they held the legal high ground: Zelaya was, after all, blatantly defying a high-court ruling, as well as his legislature and attorney general. He was, they could argue, behaving like the populist caudillo his opponents warned he wanted to be. But their violent Sunday-morning response has made them look like the Latin oligarch lackeys of old and has in fact lent credence to Zelaya's suggestion that they were indeed just defending a constitution fashioned exclusively for the haves of Honduras. In a move reminiscent of the 2002 Venezuela coup, congressional leaders claimed that Zelaya had signed a resignation letter before being flown out of the country, and they voted on Sunday to install Congress President Roberto Micheletti as President. Speaking from Costa Rica, however, Zelaya strongly denied that he had signed any such thing and insisted he was still head of state.
What underlies this crisis, however, is a sort of Cold War reprise vexing the start of Latin America's 21st century. The Chávez-led, anti-U.S. group came to power because Washington-backed capitalist reforms so often simply widened the region's epic gap between rich and poor. But the bloc's socialist ideology, which critics say is a throwback to the authoritarian leftism of a bygone era, has élites across Latin America spooked in ways their parents and grandparents were when Fidel Castro still had influence in the hemisphere.
The 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela which failed when a popular counteruprising compelled the military to restore Chávez to power was a reflection of the region's new upper- and middle-class fear. But the Honduran coup seems more troubling because it feels more archaic. And that gives Chávez and company even more political fuel for their rhetorical assaults on Washington, which they can use to strengthen not only their regional sway but also their domestic power, which currently faces serious challenges as their economies struggle.
All the more reason Obama has to play the Honduran crisis smartly. His call against "outside interference," to respect national sovereignty in ways Latin America felt the Bush Administration too often ignored, is particularly savvy. In fact, because Obama has been so measured in his response to Iran, Tehran's allies in Latin America, including Chávez, have had trouble gaining anti-Yanqui traction over that crisis. "Latin America's leftist governments have all been waiting for Obama to blow his cool, but it's not happening," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "It throws them off base."
But in this latest emergency, Obama may well need to do more than keep his cool. The U.S. recently argued that Cuba should be reinstated in the Organization of American States (which convened an emergency meeting over Honduras on Sunday) only when it demonstrates a commitment to democratic norms. Zelaya's defiance of his Supreme Court may not have been the behavior of a leader who respects the rule of law; but when soldiers in Latin America haul a democratically elected President out of his palace and into exile, the U.S. has no choice in this day and age but to roundly condemn it. Not just to throw Washington's hemispheric antagonists off base but to keep the region's military troglodytes from making a comeback.