Four years ago, Honduran officials took preemptive action to stop Hugo Chavez acolyte Manuel Zelaya from transforming their country into a Venezuelan-style autocracy. Zelaya had proposed an illegal referendum in hopes of abolishing term limits and extending his presidency. When the Honduran Supreme Court rejected his gambit as unconstitutional, he tried to proceed anyway, using orchestrated violence to intimidate his opponents. That's when the Supreme Court authorized his removal from office. Zelaya was arrested by the military and put on a plane to Costa Rica.
His ouster from the presidency -- which was supported by Honduras' National Congress, its Supreme Court, its Supreme Electoral Tribunal, its attorney general and its national prosecutor -- was legal and constitutional, as a U.S. Law Library of Congress study later confirmed. But Zelaya's exile was not, and it gave ammunition to critics who were eager to paint the whole episode as a military coup. To be sure, Honduran military leaders had good reasons for sending the would-be dictator abroad. As General Romeo Vasquez told the Miami Herald: "We felt that if he stayed here, worse things were going to happen and there would be bloodshed. He had already been acting above the law." Indeed, given Zelaya's demonstrated willingness to enlist armed thugs in the service of his political goals, it was perfectly reasonable to fear that jailing him in Tegucigalpa (or some other Honduran city) would spark a violent rebellion among his followers.
Still, by shipping him to Costa Rica, Honduran authorities cemented the notion that Zelaya's expulsion from office had been a coup. To this day, leftists and others across Latin America -- along with many journalists and think-tank scholars in the United States -- continue to depict his 2009 ouster as an illegal assault on democracy. Meanwhile, Zelaya himself is back in Honduras, having been granted an amnesty for all constitutional violations stemming from his attempted power grab.
Which brings us to the November 24 Honduran national elections. Zelaya is now running for a seat in the legislature, and his wife, Xiomara Castro, is running for the presidency. In fact, recent polling suggests that Castro is in a dead heat with her main rival, Juan Orlando Hernandez, head of the National Congress and a member of the ruling party. An avowed socialist whose platform calls for various nationalization schemes, Castro is representing the Liberty and Refoundation Party, which was launched by her husband. "At rallies, supporters often cheer more for him than for his wife," notes a Reuters dispatch from Tegucigalpa.
So what is Zelaya's agenda? Pretty much the same agenda he had back in 2009. Upon returning to Honduras from exile in May 2011, the ex-president made it clear that he still harbored "revolutionary" ambitions: "We're pushing for a Constituent Assembly to retake power," he told a crowd of his disciples. "I came to participate in what the people want -- revolutionary processes that will make this country move forward." His wife has expressed her own support for a Constituent Assembly, and she generally favors the same brand of radical populism as her husband. Speaking to the Washington Post this past summer, Honduran analyst Raul Pineda described Castro's candidacy as "a project of the international left." Her election could very easily plunge Honduras into yet another cycle of political instability.
The current Honduran president is Porfirio Lobo, who was elected in November 2009 and is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term. While Lobo's initial efforts to promote post-Zelaya reconciliation were commendable, it was a mistake to let Zelaya reenter Honduran politics, and Lobo's presidency as a whole has been a major disappointment. In fairness, Honduras suffers from weak institutions across the board, which helps explain why Lobo's well-meaning attempt to reduce police corruption wound up triggering a fresh political crisis in late 2012.
To summarize briefly: Four justices on the Supreme Court had drawn the president's ire by consistently declaring his initiatives unconstitutional. Last November, they invalidated a police-reform law, ruling that it violated due-process rights. Lobo was furious, and the National Congress -- which is controlled by his party (the National Party) -- responded by enacting the law anyway and sacking the four justices who had rejected it. Some argued that dismissing the judges was illegal, with United Nations Special Rapporteur Gabriela Knaul calling it "a grave attack against Honduras's democracy." In February, a revamped Supreme Court declined to hear the judges' appeal, which seemed to confirm fears that the rule of law was collapsing.
Weak institutions are closely related to Honduras's number-one problem, which is violent crime. In 2012, its national homicide rate was 86 per 100,000, making Honduras the most murderous country in the world. It is a nation where, in the words of State Department official Rick Barton, citizens "feel almost powerless to loosen the grip of gangs, transnational criminal organizations and corrupt officials." Back in May, Marguerite Cawley of InSight Crime reported that "extortion and threats by criminal gangs led to the shutdown of an estimated 17,500 small businesses in Honduras over the past year."