- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

OPINION:

The old adage about the ills of democracy best cured by more democracy has been borne out by recent developments in Honduras.

The arrest and expulsion from the country of President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduran military on June 28 and his replacement by a de facto regime triggered the suspension of Honduras from the Organization of American States (OAS) six days later. OAS member states, wary of anything that smacked of a military coup or a return to rule by the armed forces in a region once plagued by military dictatorship, acted swiftly to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter as the basis for suspending Honduras.

Traditionally one of Latin America’s poorest and least developed nations, Honduras made progress during the last 15 years in growing its economy and attempting to reduce the high levels of poverty and inequality. The Honduran military, the arbiter of power before the transition to democracy in the mid-1980s, took a back seat to civilian authorities.

Honduras’ gains appeared solidified to the point that it was an early participant in the Millennium Challenge Account program for U.S. development assistance, a program that rewards good governance. However, when a political standoff ensued between Mr. Zelaya’s ill-disguised efforts to pursue his continuation in office and the pushback by his political opponents, the Honduran army foolishly reacted by taking charge of the government.

Events in Honduras have laid bare weaknesses in democratic governance not only in that country but also in other parts of Latin America. At the center lies an ongoing conflict between executive power on steroids and generally weak and ineffective legislative and judiciary branches of government.

This asymmetry of power, combined with ineffective checks and balances, has led to creeping authoritarianism in a number of countries and has limited possibilities for resolving domestic political disputes by constitutional means. There has been a pronounced regional trend toward “continuismo” by which presidents extend themselves in power - the most obvious being Hugo Chavez’s steps to allow for his indefinite re-election in Venezuela. Fear of continuismo played a hand in the Honduras crisis but can provide no excuse for the military’s removal of Mr. Zelaya.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is attempting to broker an agreement between Mr. Zelaya and the de facto regime. While both sides appear entrenched, Mr. Arias is an experienced and credible negotiator who has the potential to put together a deal that can bridge the gap in Honduras until elections for a new president currently scheduled for November take place.

But even if Mr. Arias is successful, more deep-seated problems exposed by the crisis in Honduras and around the region must be addressed.

One is the central need to continue improving civil-military relations. Honduras may hopefully prove to be an exception, but the revival of the all-too-familiar practice of elites using the armed forces and not the institutions of democracy to manage a crisis of governance that requires negotiation rather than force to resolve conjures up bad memories. In the face of a regional crime wave, countries also need to strengthen their civilian police rather than be tempted to use the military in a law enforcement role.

The Honduran crisis also underscores the wide gap that exists in the region between elections and the broader exercise of citizenship - a deeper set of commitments to create a sense of citizen ownership of a democratic process that is inclusive, participatory and aimed at furthering the public good. Another election in Honduras without an attempt to stimulate a broader national dialogue on good governance, poverty and social exclusion will not go to the root of that nation’s problems.

In other parts of Latin America, the holding of periodic elections and, increasingly, of referenda of the kind Mr. Zelaya attempted to foist on Honduras, is taken as a sign that democracy is alive and well. This lowest common denominator approach to democracy too often guides the efforts of the OAS.

While member states vigorously condemned the military’s action in Honduras as a breach of constitutional order, they remain silent when the “essential elements” of democracy spelled out in the Democratic Charter are under assault elsewhere in the region - prompting critics to see the OAS as hypocritical. This dynamic is driven by traditional concerns about nonintervention in the affairs of another state.

But to be more relevant, the OAS must develop mechanisms to use the Democratic Charter to defuse political crises before they occur and to broaden efforts to shore up the quality of democratic institutions in the region.

The Obama administration took a multilateral approach in addressing the Honduran crisis, working with other OAS members to lay down a marker that military action against democracy would not be tolerated. That decision - the only correct and credible step the U.S. could have taken - has nonetheless prompted a certain amount of domestic and international criticism.

However, the administration’s response jibes with the concept of a new partnership with its hemispheric neighbors that the president outlined at the Summit of the Americas in April.

Rest assured, there will be many other opportunities to test the commitment of the administration to multilateral action in this hemisphere as well as to developing creative bilateral approaches to addressing regional concerns - including Honduras, which is still very much a work in progress. But by playing the multilateral card early, the U.S. is on route to a more cooperative relationship with our hemispheric neighbors.

Peter DeShazo is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Johanna Mendelson-Forman is the senior associate of the Americas Program and of the William E. Simon Chair for Political Economy at CSIS.

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