WASHINGTON -- Anytime a bunch of soldiers break into a presidential palace, pick up the president and put him on a flight to exile, as happened in Honduras last Sunday, you have a "coup." But, unlike most coups in Latin America's tortuous republican history, Honduras' deposed President Manuel Zelaya bears the biggest responsibility for his overthrow.
A member of the rancid oligarchy he now decries, Zelaya took office in 2006 as the leader of one of the two center-right parties that have dominated Honduran politics for decades. His general platform, his support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and his alliances with business organizations gave no inkling of the fact that halfway into his term he would become a political cross-dresser.
Suddenly, in 2007, he declared himself a socialist and began to establish close ties with Venezuela. In December of that year, he incorporated Honduras into Petrocaribe, a mechanism set up by Hugo Chavez for lavishing oil subsidies on Latin American and Caribbean countries in exchange for political subservience. Then his government joined the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA), Venezuela's answer to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, ostensibly a commercial alliance but in practice a political conspiracy that seeks to expand populist dictatorship to the rest of Latin America.
Last year, following the script originally laid out by Chavez in Venezuela and adopted by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Zelaya announced that he would hold a referendum to set up a constituent assembly that would change the constitution that barred him from re-election. In the next few months, every legal body in the country -- the electoral tribunal, the Supreme Court, the attorney general, the human rights ombudsman -- declared the referendum unconstitutional. According to the Honduran constitution (articles 5, 373 and 374), presidential term limits cannot be changed under any circumstance, only Congress can modify the constitution, and political institutions are not subject to referendums. Honduras' Congress, Zelaya's own Liberal Party and a majority of Hondurans (in various polls) expressed their horror at the prospect of having Zelaya perpetuate himself and bring Honduras into the Chavez fold. In defiance of court orders, Zelaya persisted. Surrounded by a friendly mob, he broke into the military installations where the ballots were kept and ordered them distributed. The courts declared that Zelaya had placed himself outside of the law, and Congress began an impeachment procedure.
This is the context in which the military, in an ill-advised move that turned a perfectly legal mechanism for stopping Zelaya into a coup, expelled the president. The fact that the constitutional procedure was subsequently followed by having Congress appoint the head of the legislative body, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president, and that the elections scheduled for November have not been canceled, is not enough to dissipate the cloud of illegitimacy that hangs over the new government.
This factor has disarmed Zelaya's critics in the international community in the face of a well-coordinated campaign led by Chavez to reinstate him and denounce the coup as an oligarchic assault on democracy.
That said, the international response, seeking to reinstate Zelaya without any mention of his illegal acts, has been highly inadequate. The Organization of American States, led by its secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has acted like Venezuela's poodle. At Chavez's request, Insulza went to Nicaragua, where a summit of the anti-democratic ALBA group became the hemisphere's political center of gravity following the coup. Insulza and other populist presidents said nothing about Zelaya's dictatorial conduct leading to last Sunday's events and simply echoed Venezuela's self-serving stance. Efforts by other countries, including the United States and many South American governments, to put some nuance into the public statements were neutralized by the spectacle unfolding in Nicaragua, which was widely reported across the Spanish-speaking world. It was sad to see Insulza suddenly remember his organization's Democratic Inter-American Charter in relation to Honduras -- the same rules of democratic conduct that Chavez, Morales, Correa and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega have violated on numerous occasions while the OAS looked the other way.
Honduras' crisis should bring to people's attention this truth about Latin America today: The gravest threat to liberty comes from elected populists who are seeking to subject the institutions of the law to their megalomaniac whims. Given that scenario, the hemisphere's response to Honduras' crisis has undermined those who are trying to prevent populism from taking the region back to the times when it was forced to choose between left-wing revolution and military dictatorships.