The tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and media censorship, all part of a frighteningly backwards show of state repression employed this week by the de facto government of Honduras, is symptomatic of a larger, anti-democratic trend inLatin Americathat transcends the left-right political debate.
Ever since deposed President Manuel Zelaya woke up on June 28 to find soldiers in his bedroom pointing a gun at his chest and ready to banish him to Costa Rica, the Honduran debate has been focused on assigning blame to one side or the other. For the most part, the debate has divided more along political lines than interpretations of the law.
Supporters of de facto President Roberto Micheletti argue that Zelaya is a mustachioed villain for illegally promoting efforts to reform the constitution as part of the increasingly suspect “revolutionary” agenda promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). On the other side, Zelaya supporters – and the rest of the world in general – claim the Micheletti government is the guilty party – “the gorillas,” as the ALBA countries call them – for brutishly disrupting Honduras’ democratic order.
In broader terms, the Honduran crisis has become the most conspicuous example of a more troublesome trend inLatin America: the weakening of pluralism and democracy and a return to the way of the sword.
With very few exceptions, change in Latin America in general, and inCentral Americain particular, has always been through force and violence. Dating back to pre-Colonial times, the governing rule in this part of the world has been “might makes right.” From the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to the military dictatorships of the past century, the application of this rule has been constant over the past 500 years.
That’s why the Central American Peace Accord in the 1980s remains one of the most extraordinary moments in the region’s history.
It ushered in a new era of pluralistic democracy and national reconciliation, and it established clearguidelines for peaceful transitions of power. The 1990 presidential election in Nicaragua was the first time in that country’s history that one government peacefully and willingly handed over power to an opposition party. El Salvador held its first democratic elections in 1994, and Guatemala eventually signed its peace accord in 1996.
Peace and democracy, therefore, are still in their infancy inCentral America. This is precisely why the situation in Honduras is so worrisome, not only for that country, but the region as a whole. As beleaguered Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom warned on the day of the coup in Honduras, “This could cause a domino effect in the whole region.”
In the Honduran case, both sides are to blame for steering the country off the course of democracy and onto the path of authoritarianism. Zelaya, using the misleading populist language of ALBA, tried to push for constitutional reforms in the name of “citizen power,” even though the move was widely opposed in the legislature and deemed illegal by the judicial system.
The opposition escalated the situation by ousting Zelaya from the country in a highly questionable pre-dawn raid, which threw due process and the rule of law out the window.
The countries of ALBA, in turn, responded by calling for revolt in the streets of Honduras.
“We will do everything to overthrow this [de facto] government. We have to support the rebellion in Honduras,” thundered Chávez, the commander-in-chief of the leftist ALBA adventure that has led several countries away from democracy and the rule of law and towards ungovernability.
For a while, it appeared that cooler heads would prevail in finding a solution in Honduras. The Organization of American States (OAS), for all its flubbing and hawing, called for a mediated response to the crisis. It turned to the region’s most celebrated political negotiator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who helpedCentral Americaget out of a similar bramble 20 years ago.
While Arias may not receive many Facebook-friend requests, his proven track record as a peace negotiator and his international credibility made him the easy pick as a mediator for the crisis.
His negotiation efforts, which gave birth to the San José Agreement, were not immediately embraced by either side – perhaps a testament to their evenhandedness. But the proposed accord was blessed by the international community, and Zelaya eventually warmed to the idea. The ousted leader apparently realized that even a conditioned return to power was more appealing than wandering in the proverbial desert for the rest of his life.
But the twisty road to a mediated solution may have come to a dead end this week, when Zelaya magically appeared in Honduras and called for a massive display of civil disobedience. Though the deposed leader insists his actions – which have been applauded heartily by his shoot-first comrades in ALBA – are aimed at forcing a dialogue, the move has already proved to be a decisive shift from the strategy of negotiation, leading to street violence and increased regional instability.
The actions of Zelaya and Micheletti represent a clear return to the old, violent model of might makes right in the region, which has already caused centuries of repression, bloodshed and underdevelopment. The same model is also being employed in the other ALBA countries, including neighboring Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega increasingly has used force and violence to squelch dissident voices and imposed the will of his minority party on the rest of the country.
To a lesser extent, this model is also being implemented in Guatemala and El Salvador, countries with governments that have designed heavy-handed repressive measures against their own citizens in the name of state security.
As imperfect as the San Jose Agreement is, it represents the best path through the minefield ofCentral America’s zero-sum world of politics. It’s a roadmap out of the jungle and back in the direction of workable democracies based on the principles of pluralism, peaceful coexistence and the rule of law. Arias’ plan represents a faint voice of reason that, hopefully, won’t be drowned out by war drums echoing from the past.