While the United States celebrates the 4th of July this weekend, the real fireworks might take place in tiny Honduras. On Saturday, deposed President Manuel Zelaya is expected to return home from his temporary exile in Costa Rica.
Zelaya began as a moderate president, but slid quickly towards the populist left. As a democratically elected president with several months remaining in his term, that's his right. His opponents chose to act as Zelaya was setting the stage to alter the Honduran Constitution under dubious pretenses so he could run for office again and extend his term.
During this last week in exile, Zelaya has been warmly embraced by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the self-proclaimed leader of Latin American popular socialism. Upon hearing of the coup, Chávez reacted with typical bombast. On his talk show, he threatened to invade Honduras if Zelaya wasn't restored, saying that he couldn't "stand there with his arms crossed." In reality, he just withdrew his ambassador and called on his allies Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador to do the same.
Of course, rather than advancing a solution to the crisis, Chávez's pronouncements merely gave Roberto Micheletti-the installed Honduran president-an excuse to paint himself as standing up to the Venezuelan bully.
Chávez is happy to exploit the crisis only to advance his brand of Latin socialism. Had Zelaya not gravitated toward Chávez's Bolivarian "revolution," Chavez would have paid Honduras no mind. Though present circumstances allow Chávez to protest that he's supporting the democratically-elected president, he's not. Chavez is supporting autocracy: to extend his presidency, Zelaya would have to take a page from Chávez's undemocratic playbook and illegally leverage his way into another term.
This turn of events has given some American commentators reason to back Micheletti's government, calculating that any enemy of Chávez is worth supporting in the name of freedom.
While opposing the likes of Chavez and his allies is attractive on the surface, in this situation, it is the wrong move. If Zelaya returns to Honduras to peaceably serve the remaining six months of his term, it will be a victory for democracy and the rule of law.
President Obama and his foreign policy team have been measured and firm in their support for the democratic process. Critics suggest that his administration is weak because it postponed a decision until Monday on whether to continue aid to Honduras. But by giving Hondurans an opportunity to resolve the issue peaceably, without outside pressure, the Micheletti government declared that it is willing to enter into dialogue with Zelaya.
President Obama has emphasized that the United States' post-Cold War policy towards Latin America would support institutions and legal processes, not individuals and political ideologies. As he said in his remarks earlier this week, both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. have recognized the need to "stand with democracy," even if democracy means that regional leaders aren't American allies. By focusing on the democratic process, the Obama administration has avoided the awkward position of supporting a military-backed government that just happens to be more supportive of America.
President Obama shouldn't stop there. After denouncing the military coup, Obama must stand firm against Zelaya's illegal attempts to extend the number of times he can run for president. Between Zelaya's power grabs and the militarily-installed Micheletti, there are no good answers -- neither man is going to be mistaken for a Lincoln in Tegucigalpa. But by upholding the rule of law as the ultimate arbiter, Obama has all-but ensured that Zelaya-if returned to power-will be a lame duck, limited by the Honduran Constitution. The Honduran people will have the opportunity to choose their future in free elections in November, untainted by questions of legality. Smart diplomacy of this sort will allow President Obama to limit Chávez's undue influence in the region, without having to justify military coups, like his critics are doing.
Obama and Chavez may be supporting the same president, but only one is standing for the rule of law.