Honduras Braces for a Protracted Fight

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Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters

Supporters of Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya face soldiers in Tegucigalpa.

Prospects for an early resolution to the showdown over the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya appear grim as a deadline for his reinstatement passes with the defiant coup leaders announcing that they'll instead pull Honduras out of the Organization of Americans States. The OAS had given the coup leaders until Saturday to restore Zelaya to office, but they look more unlikely than ever now to comply. Responding to unanimous international condemnation of the military raid that sent the leftist Zelaya into exile last Sunday, interim Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti summoned all his tin-pot bravado this week to warn that "if there is any invasion of our country, 7.5 million Hondurans will be ready to defend our territory."

But the onslaught Honduras is likely to face is not from troops, but from constitutional law professors.

The Honduran crisis is, perhaps, a reminder of how little progress democratic institutions have made in the poorer (and sometimes not so poor) pockets of Latin America since the Cold War. No doubt, the region has come a long way since the age of dictators. But since the 1990s, from Bolivia to Haiti, when faced with explosive constitutional challenges such as the one confronting Honduras last month, power brokers and sometimes the masses on the street still default to forceful overthrow over legal process. "There isn't yet enough confidence in legal or institutional solutions to your really big problems, so you continue to revert to the military or mobs," says Javier Corrales, a Latin American politics expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Cristina Eguizabal, director of the Latin America & Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, points out that in a recent survey, most Hondurans said the military and the church were the institutions they trusted most. "That's a troubling response," says Eguizabal, "because neither of those institutions is democratic." The problem dates back to the institutional vacuum created by the Spanish conquest of Latin America, but the U.S. is also at fault: For two decades now, Washington has promoted the belief that reputable elections are all you need to make reputable democracies — too often deemphasizing the critical importance of institutions such as the judicial and educational systems.

That deficit is most glaring in Central America, where the U.S. aided and abetted abusive militaries for much of the 20th century. Police and court structures on the isthmus seem almost useless to most citizens; homicide rates are the highest in the western hemisphere and conviction rates among the lowest. (Only 2% of Guatemala's more than 6,200 murders last year were ever solved.) It's little wonder, then, that armies are still looked to as defenders of the streets as well as the borders, not just in Central America but even in more developed Mexico to the north. There, police, prosecutors and judges are so helpless in the face of narco-violence that President Felipe Calderon has had to rely on soldiers to fight his drug war.

And yet, says Eguizabal, most of Mesoamerica "hasn't really had a serious discussion about what armed forces are for or that in an ideal democracy they're supposed to be under civilian control. That ethos just hasn't emerged yet."

The problem isn't just the military crossing the line. Zelaya understandably wanted to change Honduras' turgid constitution, oft disparaged as a charter rigged for the oligarchy. But he was guilty of his own breach of constitutional protocol by defying a Supreme Court ruling that he cease efforts to help himself win another term. (Honduran presidents are limited to one.) For many Hondurans, that raised the specter of Zelaya's controversial left-wing ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who critics say has subordinated his nation's legislative and judicial branches and this year won a referendum eliminating presidential term limits. When Zelaya organized a non-binding referendum for June 28 to gauge support for his agenda (note to Zelaya: you could have simply hired Gallup to do the same thing), the Supreme Court ruled it illegal. Zelaya vowed to hold it anyway, sparking Honduras' crisis.

But what baffles the U.S. and Latin American governments is what happened next: Honduras' high court and congress (which Micheletti headed) now had grounds to impeach Zelaya or follow any other legal recourse. Instead, they called out the soldiers to nab Zelaya at 5:30 am in his pajamas — which the military was more than happy to do since Zelaya had days earlier fired its chief, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, for refusing to back the referendum.

"What were these guys thinking?" asks one diplomat involved in coordinating the hemisphere's response to the coup. "They had Zelaya boxed into a legal corner, and then they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

The OAS has vowed to suspend Honduras' membership in that 34-nation body if Micheletti doesn't agree by the end of Saturday to allow Zelaya's return to see out his term. A more serious threat to impoverished Honduras is the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollar in U.S. and other foreign aid. Micheletti insisted Thursday that Zelaya, who has said he'll fly to Honduras if an accord isn't reached this weekend, "has committed a crime and he must be tried for that crime." But Micheletti and his cronies seem oblivious to the fact that they have now arguably committed a worse crime.

OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza on Friday flew into Tegucigalpa, where sporadic clashes between soldiers and Zelaya supporters earlier in the week have given way to an uneasy calm. After speaking with Supreme Court judges and other officials, Insulza said the de facto government had no intention of giving in and said suspension from the OAS would automatically lead to cuts in various aid programs and loans from member countries. "In no country in the world is it legal for soldiers to take a president out of his house and fly him out the country," he said in a tense press conference. "It is a military coup in a region where we thought there would be no more coups. It is a big step backwards."

It may also be a big step toward trouble. On Saturday, thousands of Zelaya supporters massed in the capital and surrounded the airport showing the growing strength of protests against the coup. Organizers promised they would return Sunday and the ousted president would fly into greet them. "We want to solve this peacefully," said 24 year old teacher Rony Orellana, covering his face with a red bandana in the blazing sun. "But if the coup leaders want to a war then there will be a bloodbath."

— With reporting by Ioan Grillo /Tegucigalpa