Through their response, the nations of the world are contributing to pushing the Central American nations of Nicaragua and Honduras towards disaster. They are already the poorest and second poorest countries of Latin America, and they are both in deep political crises of credibility in the rule of law.
The Nicaraguan president, former revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega, has stacked the Supreme Court illegally, is altering the Constitution illegally, and wants to run for re-election illegally. Yet the reaction from the world is almost non-existing.
The former Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, tried to stack the Supreme Court but was stopped by the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, tried to alter the Constitution but was stopped by the Supreme Court, and tried to make himself a dictator but was deposed by a near unanimous vote in Congress and the Supreme Court. The reaction of the world was to demand his reinstatement.
The stance of the world, including of course the U.S., seriously undermines the faith in the rule of law in Central America. The caudillo wannabe is rewarded, the democratic institutions are chastised.
If the world wanted to create chaos, conflict, even war, they couldn’t have devised a more efficient strategy than the one they are now implementing in Central America.
Several Viking time laws start with the statement “Countries are Built with Laws.” It reflects an understanding that functioning, peaceful societies require that there are rules that are universally accepted, and honored since there is confidence that they are enforced. What is going on in Central America is an undermining of these sentiments, since the presidents that attack the rule of law are seemingly rewarded, and the institutions and persons who defend the rule of law are punished by the world.
Yet, it may all be unintentional. As they say in Washington, never blame on malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
In the case of Zelaya, it is apparent to everyone that a crime was committed when he was sent to Costa Rica. Not knowing the background, the only possible conclusion would be that it was a military coup d’état. However, now that we all have had ample time to study the background, it is equally clear that the Supreme Court of Honduras had the legal authority to arrest the president; that they had due cause to arrest the president; and that they could relieve the president from office during the trials.
They issued an arrest order for the president, not an expatriation order. Expatriating him was a separate crime. Two wrongs don’t make one right. Yet the world demanded that Zelaya be reinstated. From a foreign perspective it seemed like a politically correct stance, not to say the only possible stance. I cannot criticize those who took that stance, since I would have done the same in their positions.
Yet, from a Honduran perspective it was impossible, since it would have meant disaster to reinstate Zelaya. He would rapidly have attacked those that acted to arrest him. To allow him to be reinstated and wield power would have been suicidal for the republic. Thus, I cannot criticize Micheletti either. Both sides did what they had to do.
Was there no possible compromise? The legally acceptable solution, to both sides, should have been to have Zelaya return to Honduras to face jail; to take up the process where it was interrupted. For him to turn himself over to the custody of the military, be brought before a judge, and the judge deciding if he should be removed from office or reinstated. In fact, this is exactly what Micheletti was proposing in the negotiations: That the Supreme Court decide on his reinstatement or not.
However, Zelaya responded by demanding that Congress take that decision, and Micheletti relented. As we know, Congress voted almost unanimously not to reinstate Zelaya.
In summary, although the process went bad when the military expatriated Zelaya, it was brought back on track with the Guaymuras agreement, where the topic of his reinstatement was decided (although it technically should have been done by the Supreme Court, one can argue that Zelaya gave up that right when he himself insisted that Congress should decide instead of the court).
Yet this resolution to the legal situation has not brought back peace and stability to Honduras. Why? It seems the largest problem is the lack of faith in the rule of law in Honduras.
It is very detrimental that other countries accuse the Supreme Court of violating the law.
For instance, the fact that the U.S. has revoked tourist visas for all members of the Supreme Court is a clear vote of lack of confidence in the highest judicial institution in Honduras. If the U.S. doesn’t trust the Supreme Court in Honduras, why would Hondurans? And if they don’t trust the Supreme Court, why would they obey the laws at all? It promotes the attitude that crime pays. And it does, in Honduras. The attitude is, I’m told, that if you don’t stuff your pockets illegally when you have a chance, you’re an idiot.
This attitude is reinforced by the policy of the U.S. and other countries.
So what to do instead?
First, the main principle in dealing with Honduras and Nicaragua must be to reinforce the faith in the rule of law, based, of course, on their domestic jurisprudence and experience, not on that of the U.S. All aspects of law enforcement and justice, including human rights, must be given top priority in institution-building support. This should be done with respect for the local conditions and experiences, to be effective.
A second point is respect for the democratic institutions, including direct diplomatic contacts that bypass the executive branch and go directly to the judicial and legislative branches. Name-calling must of course stop. It is so unprofessional for a staffer in the U.S. Senate to call Honduran Supreme Court justices and Congressmen “golpistas”.
A third point is how to deal with wannabe dictators. The OAS should intervene in the case of Nicaragua today. Once the court is stacked, the rule of law has ceased to exist. One cannot call Nicaragua a democracy any more; the coup d’état has already been sown and all that remains is to harvest it. The world should make clear that it will not accept having Ortega on the ballot, that it will lead to harsh sanctions.
The last point is to engage in the economy of these countries. Right now an environmental disaster is sailing up in Honduras. A beautiful and unique lake, Lago de Yojoa, is being destroyed by unsustainable fish farming. Within a few years the lake will die. Today it is still possible to develop eco-tourism as an alternate source of income in the community, but once the lake dies, so does that possibility. Yet the market forces inevitably drive the development towards that looming disaster. “Adult supervision” is desperately needed, but nothing can be done without risk capital willing to invest in tourism development, thus producing an opposing force to the one that is pressuring for unsustainable exploitation. For this to happen there must be stability and faith in the rule of law. See point 1.
Among those who benefit from the present policy is the military-industrial complex, who get to sell more weapons and security systems when the time comes to put out the fire in Central America, that the present policy promotes. Furthermore, those that sell systems for border security benefit, since ever more Central Americans are destined to migrate illegally to the U.S. Those who hire illegals in the U.S. will also benefit, because the supply of cheap labor will continue. Also the drug cartels in Mexico will benefit, since they can exploit the migrants and force them to work like mules, smuggling cocaine to the U.S. (and if they refuse, they are shot).
As you see, much is at stake also for the U.S. of A. It is time to wisen up.
Footnote: Former US ambassador to Honduras, Charles A Ford, wrote an analysis in June this year in which he – in my opinion – correctly and succinctly described the situation. Read it!