Wednesday, October 14, 2009

“Please help us have elections,” the president of Honduras said to our small delegation. “We want elections and democracy.”

Despite the best efforts of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to stop us, four Republicans - Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reps. Peter Roskam and Aaron Schock of Illinois and I - flew to Honduras to see for ourselves the impact of U.S. policy on this beleaguered country.

Honduras is being pulled in two vastly different directions. Leftist elements led by Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez want it to become a dictatorship. Pro-Western Hondurans want it to remain democratic and free. Honduras is at a tipping point. A country in our own backyard that is on the front line of the struggle for freedom should be an automatic candidate for U.S. assistance.

Since its independence from Spain in 1838, Honduras has had, by one count, 300 rebellions, civil wars and changes of government.

Though their country is one of the poorest in the hemisphere, Hondurans are not poor in spirit. Fiercely determined to establish a permanent democracy, they have held presidential elections every four years since 1982. Their constitution enshrines their commitment to a democracy free of dictators. It not only limits presidents to a single four-year term but goes far beyond that in a way that would make even the strongest advocates of term limits in the U.S. quail.

In Honduras, under Section 239 of the constitution, a president can’t even propose to change the single four-year term structure or he must be expelled immediately from office.

Enter Manuel Zelaya, elected president of Honduras in 2005. He initially seemed to run as a mainstream candidate on a conservative platform. After his election, however, he started spending time with Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Chavez has formed ALBA, a group of leftist governments in Central and South America aimed at countering U.S. and Western interests. Under Mr. Zelaya, Honduras officially joined the group by a narrow vote. Besides Venezuela and Honduras, ALBA includes Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Mr. Zelaya sealed his fate as far as public opinion was concerned when he began pushing to change the constitution. In obvious violation of Section 239, he issued a decree in June seeking an additional vote during the November elections on whether the Honduran people wanted to dissolve the constitution. This presumably was to revisit and revise the strict term-limits provision so he could stay in power and consolidate his grip on the country.

The Honduran Supreme Court immediately and unanimously agreed to take a case against him and issued a warrant for his arrest. The National Congress later passed a law approving his removal from office by a unanimous vote. This is a body controlled by Mr. Zelaya’s party.

A few days before, authorities had confiscated ballots for the illegal vote that had been preprinted and flown in from Venezuela. A mob led by Mr. Zelaya then broke into the military warehouse where they were stored and seized the ballots by force.

The one clear mistake by the Honduran authorities was to expel him from the country. This was against an existing law, though the military claims to have been motivated by concern for public safety. However, it is important to note that the independent Congressional Research Service recently released a report stating that the Honduran authorities were within their constitutional right to remove Mr. Zelaya from office.

Roberto Micheletti, the president of the Congress from Mr. Zelaya’s own party, was sworn in as president to replace Mr. Zelaya through the end of the term. He leaves office in January, when the winner of next month’s elections is to be sworn in.

Mr. Chavez has been creating an unending drumbeat of support for Mr. Zelaya. For unknowable reasons, President Obama and the State Department under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton have sided with Mr. Chavez and against the united Honduran authorities.

According to U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, the State Department had legal advice from Harold Koh to back up its alternative view. This is the same man who claimed the 2003 liberation of Iraq by the United States was a violation of international law.

The United States has demanded that Mr. Zelaya be restored, has suspended $30 million in aid desperately needed by the people of the country and has revoked or refused to issue visas to government leaders who otherwise could come to Washington to tell their story.

We met with the entire Supreme Court minus only one, with Mr. Micheletti and several of his Cabinet ministers, with two of the three election tribunal members and also a citizens panel that included Americans living in Honduras. To a person, they not only wanted to be done with Mr. Zelaya but said if he was restored to power for even one hour, as the United States under the leadership of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton has insisted, their country would be finished as a democracy.

Every single Honduran with whom we met stressed that the already scheduled Nov. 29 elections (which do not include Mr. Zelaya or Mr. Micheletti) are the way forward.

It boggles my mind that the United States is disregarding the constitution of a historical ally and the role of free and fair elections. Even worse, it furthers the regional goals of Mr. Chavez, an emerging tyrant who, not content just to oppress his own people, is an enemy of U.S. and civilized values and wants to spread his poison across an entire hemisphere.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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