Honduras - the undemocratic republic

Without pressure from the US or Latin America, the Honduran coup government will remain an ugly blem

When the military removal of the president of Honduras on June 28 sparked near-universal condemnation in the region, many thought the coup regime's days were numbered. But more than two months after Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped from his home and removed from the country, he has still not been able to return.

The situation in the impoverished Central American nation is extremely unsettling for the region. The coup government's persistence in power and its open repression are daily undermining confidence in the future of the decades-long wave of democratization in the Western Hemisphere - and in the ability of its governments, including the Obama administration, to effectively sustain it.

The US State Department last week formalized the withdrawal of some aid from the country and finally joined the rest of the Americas in saying it couldn't recognize the results of November's scheduled presidential elections if the actual elected president is still exiled from the country. But the de facto government is standing firm.

Despite a unanimous call in the Organization of American States for the "immediate and unconditional" return of Zelaya, no-one has been able or willing to apply the pressure necessary to make the coup government back down. The Obama administration has been unwilling to use all the tools at its disposal or even to officially designate the event a "military" coup. That would require an ugly discussion in Congress, where many right-wing Republicans hold on to the bizarre idea that Zelaya's military ouster was a democratic response to some kind of a regional Hugo Chavez socialist conspiracy.

Much of the discussion has surrounded the legal specifics of the president's removal. Indeed, it was not a classic military coup. The Supreme Court supported his removal and the man who took over, Roberto Micheletti, was next in line constitutionally. Zelaya's opponents claim he broke the law by attempting to change the constitution to remain in office. But it was simply having his supporters distribute a non-binding poll on a desire for constitutional reform - which, even if successful, could have never have changed the fact that a new president will be elected in November - that justified his removal to the political elites of the extremely unequal country, already angered by his movement from centre-right to centre-left.

Less attention has been paid, however, to the repression the new government has self-confidently employed to stay in power. Security forces have opened fire on the thousands of people protesting the coup, and at least ten activists have been killed. The government has arrested hundreds of people and shut down critical media. Pro-coup outlets censor information and doctor images of slain protestors. These scenes are disturbing reminders of an ugly past from which Latin America had distanced itself since the 1980s, and to which no neighbours, left or right, seem eager to return.

Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, said "After Zelaya, I'm next." This is an understandable fear. Correa, a pragmatic leftist with a Ph.D in economics, had to wage a lengthy legal and electoral battle with elites and an unpopular but powerful legislature to bring political stability to his country. With Honduras as an example, militaries could ally with elites to remove popular left-wing governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, or numerous other countries. But the unanimity of opposition to the coup in Honduras - in the Western hemisphere, only the US retains an ambassador there - indicate that it is not only leftists who don't want to return to a world where politics is decided outside of elections.

Obama had a tough summer. He realized, among other things, that in America, proposing even a moderate role for the government in healthcare gets you slammed politically for being a Soviet, or worse, French, socialist. Tragically, it seems Obama has reasoned that the small and beleaguered nation of Honduras isn't worth the damage from the further criticism he would receive, however ridiculous, for intervening full-force in Honduras on behalf of "Chavez-style communism". Pro-coup business leaders in Honduras already have hired powerful Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis, who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign, to make their case in the US.

The Honduran coup government itself has not been very grateful for Obama's critical but permissive stance. A spokesman for acting president Roberto Micheletti said Obama was siding with Chavez and that his decisions "condemned the people that struggle against Marxist expansion in Central America". Earlier and even more charmingly, the appointed foreign minister of the coup government called Obama a "little black plantation worker".

Disgusting as it is, the acting government in Honduras does not look likely, without significant outside pressure, to give into accords brokered by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias to allow Zelaya to return. If this pressure doesn't materialise, either from the US or Latin America, the coup government is likely to successfully delay until the elections in November. They would take place with a cloud cast over them that will isolate Honduras further to the world.

And Honduras will remain an ugly blemish on Latin America's relatively clean recent record of embracing democratic approaches to its problems and aspirations.