[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/07/01/honduras.coup.OAS/art.president.honduras.un.jpg caption="Ousted Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya appears Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly."]
Executive Director, Washington Office on Latin America
Make no mistake, the sudden and clandestine removal of a president, while still in his pajamas, by the military is certainly a coup. Yes, military coups can still happen in Central America and there are lessons to be drawn from the recent coup d’etat in Honduras.
Neighboring countries and the U.S. continue to craft their responses to the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. It is clear, however, that the best way to deal with Central America’s first coup since 1993 is through multilateral engagement via the Organization of American States (OAS).
While some seek to stoke regional tensions by interpreting the situation in Honduras as related to Venezuela, multi-lateral dialogue offers a less polarizing solution to Honduras’ latest political turmoil. Restoring democracy in Honduras with OAS involvement offers a unique opportunity to strengthen relations throughout the hemisphere, forge consensus, and reinvigorate a regional body that is crucial in safeguarding human rights and democracy.
So far, the U.S. and most other OAS members have taken steps in this direction. The OAS Permanent Council met yesterday, and in the coming days an OAS delegation led by Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza plans to accompany President Zelaya in his return to Honduras.
It is not clear what awaits the ousted President upon his arrival. The Honduran Congress and Supreme Court have maintained their determination to have him arrested, and his safety may be at risk. The U.S., as well as the rest of the international community, should strongly back the OAS in its efforts to resolve the conflict. Returning the democratically elected president to power is only the beginning of this complicated situation.
It’s important to remember that underlying this crisis are institutional weaknesses and social tensions that have been chipping away at the foundation of democracy in Honduras for years.
Honduras is the third poorest country in Latin America, and social exclusion and discontent run high among the majority of the population. Many are dissatisfied with what they perceive as an unresponsive political system and bankrupt parties. Zelaya’s plan to hold a non-binding referendum, about whether Constitutional reform should be an issue voted on in the November federal elections, was symptomatic of the political frustration across the country.
Many feel that the Constitution, written when civilians wrestled control of the government from the military in the mid 1980s, did not live up to expectations. In fact, many Hondurans who did not necessarily support Zelaya were in support of Constitutional reform. Any sustainable resolution to the current coup will need to deal with these long-term problems, and international support will be key.
While the U.S. works within the OAS to respond to the situation, the Obama Administration must comply with U.S. law that orders the withdrawal of foreign assistance in the event of a military coup.
WOLA has heard of numerous reports of government violence against protesters, the unlawful detention of social activists, and accounts of political leaders going into hiding out of fear. The world is watching to see if the U.S. can stick with a multilateral approach, and the Obama Administration should seize this opportunity to work with the OAS to promote democracy and the rule of law in Honduras.
After all, as we are learning, working multi-laterally, although at times challenging, is enormously beneficial.
Editor’s Note: Joy Olson is the Executive Director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). WOLA promotes human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice in Latin America since 1974. WOLA has played a key role in all major Washington policy debates over human rights in Latin America.
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