Jamie Kirchick, Rick Richman, and J.G. Thayer have offered persuasive comments on the Honduran crisis, which is rapidly turning into a kind of political Rorschach test. If you are the Christian Science Monitor, you sigh that “The fact a military coup occurred apparently against U.S. wishes suggests how American dominance in the region has waned,” a verdict that nicely condemns Zelaya’s ouster as a coup, insinuates that the U.S. may secretly have been involved in it, and uses the occasion to applaud the decline and fall of the American Empire. If, like the Obama Administration, you want to “engage” America’s enemies into placidity, Honduras offers an opportunity to stand alongside Hugo Chavez and the Castros in defense of what is implausibly called democracy.
Yet the ink blots form a pattern. What these approaches have in common is that they do not actually relate to what is going on in Honduras. As is too often the case when liberals discuss foreign affairs, they are all about us — our (supposed) responsibility, our dominance, our relations with other states. That’s too bad, because liberals have a tradition that would allow them to contribute to making sensible U.S. policy towards Honduras.
That tradition begins with Eleanor Roosevelt’s recognition that “Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world, which we must not allow to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” And it should continue to ask an obvious question: does Zelaya’s plan to hold an “election” to fundamentally remake the constitution make him a democrat? More broadly, do elections make a democracy?
Obviously not — they are a necessary but not sufficient condition. This was a point that some on the left — and indeed, the right — were fond of making about George W. Bush’s support of democracy in the Middle East, the argument being that the pursuit of elections in Iraq and elsewhere was, at best, a pursuit of image over substance. In practice, this argument tended to slight the reality that, while elections do not make a democracy, you cannot have democracy without elections. But as a broader point, it is fair enough. After all, as Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged, there are lots of places in the world that call themselves democracies, that claim to be legitimated by elections, but are obviously no such thing — Putin’s Russia, or Iran, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example.
Nor, it must follow, does being elected grant a leader a right to subvert fundamentally the existing constitutional order. We saw enough of this in the twentieth century to know where it leads. The policy of other states toward a particular country must rest not on the existence of the form of democracy, but rather on its substance. And that can only be decided by studying what is happening in the state in question. When elected dictatorship impends a “coup” in defense of constitutional order, it is no coup: it is an expression of the right of self-government, for it is the government itself that has become illegitimate. Americans, above all others, should understand this.
It’s not as though we’ve not seen this before. As Brian Nelson’s book on the 2002 rebellion against Chavez points out, it happened in Venezuela. Nelson’s work is an exhaustive study of the popular revolt against Chavez that led, because of the failings of his opposition, to Chavez’s return to power and his institution of fully dictatorial rule. It was recently praised by the Economist as “scrupulously unbiased.”
Right now, Honduras is at about April 12, 2002 in this process: it has gotten rid of its dictator-in-the-making, but the opposition (severely hampered in this case by the U.S.) has not been able to stabilize the situation. As with Venezuela, all the opportunities now rest with the dictator’s friends: the more trouble they make, the less orderly the new state will be, and the more likely the old regime is to find a way back. That would be a tragedy for Honduras, as it was for Venezuela.
Of course, Chavez backs Zelaya in part because Zelaya is his political ally. But there is more to it than that. Zelaya is not just an ally: his anti-constitutional revolution is following the same course as Chavez’s did. Chavez must realize that, if Zelaya can be restored to power, his own legitimacy will be enhanced; if Zelaya does not return, Chavez’s own legitimacy — it is amazing that it exists at all — will be even more badly tarnished. There is a great deal at stake in Honduras, and the stakes are not clarified by looking through the old lenses of “military coup,” or “legitimately elected government” — never mind the “it’s all about us” theme of the liberal commentariat.