By recognizing the recent Honduran elections, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has legitimized that country’s military coup.
Five months ago, reports emerged alleging that Colombian officials had met with representatives of Roberto Micheletti just weeks after the military coup that made Mr. Micheletti the de facto leader of Honduras. Later that week, I wrote in Colombia Reports that the meeting was both unethical and risky for Colombia, which is increasingly finding itself politically isolated from its Latin American neighbors.
This week, Uribe repeated his mistake. The Honduran golpista regime held apparently credible elections, although the country is still in a state of lockdown imposed by the military. Porfirio Lobo, a wealthy landowner and longtime opponent of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in the June coup, won the majority of the vote. President Uribe was among the first leaders in Latin America to congratulate Mr. Lobo on his victory.
Lobo claims that he will lead a government of national unity. But he has made few rhetorical concessions to those both within and outside Honduras who question the legitimacy of the post-coup elections. “Zelaya is already history,” said Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in the 2005 presidential elections. “He is already part of the past.” The election, in short, was a victory for the golpistas and Uribe’s recognition merely legitimates the coup.
Admittedly, Uribe’s recognition of the recent election is markedly different from his meeting with the young golpista regime in July. First, whereas Uribe’s government was almost alone in reaching out to Micheletti’s government in July, Colombia is not the only Latin American country to have recognized Mr. Lobo as President. Panama, Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica (whose President played an important role in negotiations between Zelaya and Micheletti) have all congratulated Lobo on his victory.
Second and most importantly, the United States, which like most governments denounced the June coup, also recognizes Mr. Lobo’s election. On this matter, therefore, Colombia is on the same side as its powerful ally to the north, by far the most important international player in Honduras’s ongoing political crisis.
Third, it can certainly be argued that recognizing the recent Honduran election is very different from legitimating the de facto regime that ousted Mr. Zelaya. After all, Mr. Micheletti has not held on to power. Neither, at least officially, has the military. Instead, Mr. Lobo is leading an entirely new government elected in apparently fraud-free elections.
Further, today as in July, Mr. Zelaya’s own political intentions are questionable. In the months preceding the coup, he became increasingly close to Venezuela’s autocratic President, Hugo Chavez. Worse yet, he had been pushing for changes to his country’s constitution that, according to his critics, were aimed at allowing his re-election.
Nevertheless, President Uribe’s decision to recognize the elections was a mistake for at least two reasons. First, even if the elections had a high turnout and were fair, they set a dangerous precedent for the entire region by sending the message that coups are an acceptable way to effect political change. Ambitious military leaders throughout Latin America will likely be encouraged by the fact that Honduras’s generals were successful in ousting Zelaya and opening the door for a government more in line with their political vision for the country. Indeed, if Latin America’s governments are serious about democratization, they should accept nothing less than the reinstatement of Mr. Zelaya as President.
Second, fraud is not the only measure of the success, much less the fairness, of an election. Simply put, the current political climate in Honduras is not apt for a truly free and fair election. Political freedoms have been severely limited since the coup, and even stricter measures were implemented in the days around the elections. Just a few days before the vote, the de facto government declared an official state of siege and suppressed anti-coup rallies.
Moreover, the fact that President Uribe, like Zelaya, changed his country’s constitution to allow his re-election (and seems to be exploring changing it again to run for a third term) makes his recognition of Mr. Lobo seem hypocritical and politically motivated.
Indeed, whereas Latin American leaders had been unusually united in their rejection of the June coup, democracy has since taken a backseat to politics. On the recent Honduran elections, as on many other issues, the region finds itself divided between left-leaning and right-leaning governments. The list of countries that, in one way or another, refused to recognize Lobo’s election includes Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as more widely respected progressive governments such as Brazil’s, Chile’s and Spain’s.
Unfortunately, the biggest loser in this cycle of polarization is democracy. Political divisions and a growing sense of mistrust in Latin America are not only fueling border tensions and arms races, but they are also eroding the progress achieved during two decades of steady democratization. Mr. Zelaya’s allegedly undemocratic constitutional changes were used to justify a blatantly antidemocratic coup. Similarly, in South America, Hugo Chavez’s aggressive authoritarianism has certainly helped Uribe’s first and second re-election referenda and vice versa.
When a country enters a political crisis such as Honduras’s, its neighbors should not favor any one side, but rather work to protect and strengthen democratic institutions. In this particular case, the international community should accept nothing less than the reversal of the coup, even as a precursor to national elections. Unfortunately, Colombia, the U.S. and other governments who recognized the recent elections have done just the opposite. If the June coup raised fears that Latin America was slipping back into the polarization and instability of the Cold War, these governments’ politically motivated reaction to the recent election has merely exacerbated those worries.