- - Thursday, October 10, 2013

When the world last heard from Honduras in 2009, the country had sparked a regional crisis after deposing its president, Manuel Zelaya, for his repeated illegal attempts to rewrite the Honduran Constitution as his amigo, the now-deceased autocrat Hugo Chavez, had done in Venezuela. Despite the fact that the Law Library of the U.S. Congress later found the process to be constitutional, the Obama administration joined Chavez and other radical regimes in branding Mr. Zelaya’s removal a “military coup” and unleashed punitive sanctions on one of the region’s poorest countries.

Honduras survived that assault, but not before enduring such affronts to its sovereignty as Mr. Zelaya buzzing the airport in Tegucigalpa on a plane with Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza after being denied landing rights, and then Mr. Zelaya sneaking back into the country and finding refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, where he lined his room with tinfoil because he said Israeli agents were beaming microwaves at him.

Incredibly, Mr. Zelaya is poised to return to power in Honduras next month in the person of his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, a candidate in presidential elections to be held Nov. 24. Ms. Castro, who has never held elected office, currently leads the polls in a three-way race, although with just under 30 percent support.

That Manuel Zelaya is anywhere near the halls of power in Honduras today reflects the degree to which the country has bent over backwards to placate misguided international opinion. It may result in not only a national disaster, but a regional one as well — with significant implications for U.S. security interests. For starters, Ms. Castro has campaigned on a platform of “refounding” the country along the lines of other radical populist regimes in the region. This includes rewriting the Honduran Constitution — the very issue that led to her husband’s impeachment — which, in the other countries has meant centralizing power in the executive, gutting checks and balances and turning more of the economy over to the state at the expense of the private sector.

If the effort to transform the Honduran state along chavista lines didn’t work the first time, it is unlikely to work again — and will only lead to another round of confrontation, recrimination and polarization that defined her husband’s tenure.

Secondly, Mr. Zelaya’s other legacy is this: an explosion of drug trafficking through Honduran territory to the United States. His reckless policies to undermine Honduran institutions and the rule of law — if not his outright complicity — created a permissive environment for the drug trade to flourish. The statistics are undeniable. Today, the U.S. State Department estimates that around 87 percent of all cocaine-smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras — most of that spiking during Mr. Zelaya’s tenure. (Drug trafficking’s close cousin, societal violence, also exploded in Honduras during this time.)

Indeed, following Mr. Zelaya’s removal from power, the foreign minister of the new government told CNN, “Every night, three or four Venezuelan-registered planes land without the permission of appropriate authorities and bring thousands of pounds … and packages of money that are the fruit of drug trafficking. We have proof of all of this. Neighboring governments have it. The DEA has it.” Several Republicans in Congress subsequently wrote the administration for corroboration of Mr. Zelaya’s complicity in drug trafficking, but never received a reply.

It is not difficult to predict that a Zelaya restoration will simply create havoc for U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the region.

Returning Honduras to the radical fold had always been a goal of Hugo Chavez and his acolytes. His removal was a bitter blow, because it exposed the limits of chavismo’s appeal, which they had envisioned as an irreversible pan-American movement. That explains as well why left-wing activists in the United States have been waging a campaign to cut off U.S. security assistance to help Honduras combat the drug syndicates. They want to make the country so ungovernable that the people will turn to a man on horseback (Mr. Zelaya, through his wife) who will make all manner of grandiose, unfulfillable promises to “fix” the country.

Congress must not fall for this ploy. Honduras desperately needs outside assistance to fight the drug cartels, and that can come only from the United States and like-minded allies such as Colombia, Mexico and the European Union. Moreover, the Obama administration must wake up to the renewed radical populist threat in Central America. Obviously, it cannot pick and choose who opts to run for president in Honduras, but it can fund a robust monitoring effort of the electoral process to help prevent abuse — a chavista hallmark — including following the money, and it can release what it knows about Mr. Zelaya’s ties to international drug trafficking. The stakes are too high for the Honduran people and regional U.S. security interests for the administration to pretend all things are equal in just another election in some international backwater.

Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.