Caroline Esser is a Research Intern at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The unfolding political crisis in Hondruas reminds me of a statement that Imran Khan, world-class cricket player and current member of the Pakistani Parliament, gave at a recent New America Foundation event: the United States can best promote American ideals and positively influence other countries by supporting the democratic process rather than sponsoring one “chosen” leader (or American puppet), as the Bush administration did for years in supporting former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
It seems that Obama has surprised many by doing as Imran Khan advised in Honduras – he has demanded the reinstatement of President Manuel Zelaya in the name of democracy.
Daniel Larison, a blogger for the American Conservative, attempts to show a contradiction between the Obama administration’s criticism of the coup in Honduras and its support for the protesters in Iran.
Larison claims that in both cases the dissenters rightfully objected to the violation of their countries’ democratic institutions. He asks, “Isn’t it the case that the response of Honduran political and military institutions to presidential illegalities is exactly the one that most of the Western world has been openly desiring in Iran?”
But what were previously legitimate and progressive efforts to challenge Zelaya’s referendum became regressive and anti-democratic when the opposition used military force to expel their democratically elected president from the country. Larison is correct that the people of Honduras had every right to protest their president’s violation of the constitution; however, U.S. support cannot and should not extend to military violence.
And there is another distinction between Hondruas and Iran. Honduras has a genuinely democratic system worth supporting, whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran’s democracy is largely a facade.
A review of past U.S. policy in Latin America demonstrates the wisdom of Obama’s policy. It cannot be forgotten how many times in our recent past we have supported this sort of military coup, covertly facilitating the replacement of a leftist Latin American president in the hopes of expanding our sphere of influence.
The most well known example of this type of thoughtless American foreign policy is the 1973 American-backed coup d’ÃƒÂ©tat that removed Salvador Allende from power in Chile and replaced him with General Augusto Pinochet, a military dictator who committed countless human rights violations and played a large role in Operation Condor – a brutal effort to eliminate socialist dissenters from the Southern Cone.
Though democratically elected, Allende was ousted because the United States feared his allegiance to the Marxist party. Of course there are less extreme and more recent examples of this sort of American meddling, including President Bush’s support of a Venezuelan coup to displace Chavez in 2002.
As Faith Smith has pointed out on this blog (here and here), choosing the side of democracy was no simple matter in the Honduran case because although Zelaya was democratically elected he has recently attempted to alter the Honduran constitution and reform the presidential term limit (never an indicator of a democratically inclined leader).
But Obama is correct to support the democratic process rather than any individual or political party.
On June 28th, Obama made the following statement:
I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call 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.
Thus President Obama has simply and wisely stressed the unconditional importance of constitutional law and democratic elections.
Along with the Senate’s unanimous decision to pass the Kerry-Lugar Bill which declares “the consolidation of democracy, good governance, and rule of law” as the United States’ number one policy commitment Pakistan – President Obama’s response to the situation in Honduras indicates that the United States may be carving out a refreshingly modest, principled approach to democracy promotion.
— Caroline Esser