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Is the OAS Against Democracy?

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The Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself in a conundrum. When it condemned last week's coup in Honduras, the OAS was convinced that it was defending democracy. Today, the OAS is not so sure. In his recent visit to Tegucigalpa, the OAS secretary general José Miguel Insulza found himself in the awkward position of threatening a government that is supported by virtually all democratic forces in the country.

This is a crisis of asymmetrical illegitimacy--an international condemnation of a domestically legitimate government--that the OAS does not know how to address. It could start by trying to understand why so many Hondurans support the new government.

When the Honduran military ousted a sitting president last Sunday, many analysts saw in this crisis the return of a Latin American ghost--the military coup, which had been relatively absent from the region for decades. But the coup, a deeply troubling event, was not the only ghost from the past to have re-emerged. The other ghost was hyper-presidentialism.

Hyper-presidentialism occurs when elected presidents try to take the law into their hands, ignore constitutional limits, supersede the Congress and the courts, and use every possible trick to prolong their stay in office. Hyper-presidentialism directs a grave assault on democracy, because it is a challenge to political institutions coming from none other than the commander and spender in chief.

Hyper-presidentialism has become a recurrent problem in many Latin American democracies since the 1990s, and it set the stage for the Honduras coup. The democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, tried to run roughshod over the judiciary and the legislature.

The trigger was Zelaya's desire to seek another term in office. The Honduran Constitution prohibits re-election and, remarkably, the mention of one's desire to end this prohibition. Under normal circumstances, calling to reform this excessive constitutional restriction would seem perfectly reasonable. But democratic presidents must convince people of the need to reform, not exacerbate citizens' insecurity. Zelaya failed in this task. Everything he did suggested that his ultimate goal was to empower the Executive to the detriment of the other branches of government, and this scared all democratic forces.

This dark scenario of an electoral referendum turning into a mechanism to undermine the existing branches of government was not that far-fetched. It mirrors previous actions by Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, Zelaya's strongest current ally. In the early 1990s, "self-coups" staged by Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jorge Serrano in Guatemala were internationally condemned. Chávez avoided such condemnation by acting through a constituent assembly, which in 1999 disbanded the other branches of government and granted formidable powers to the Executive.

Zelaya failed to provide credible assurances that he did not harbor similar undemocratic intentions. Zelaya's populist line--a center-right millionaire's sudden self-proclamation as the "champion" of the poor--convinced no one. Even Zelaya's own party and several cabinet members argued with evidence that Zelaya was breaking the law and hoping to usurp the roles of the Congress and the judiciary. Zelaya's decision on the eve of the coup to re-name the referendum as a "poll" so as to circumvent the Constitution was as insulting to everyone's intelligence as the Congress' claim the following day that Zelaya had resigned.

Ultimately, the tragedy is that the military played a crucial role, siding with the judiciary and legislature over the Executive branch and undermining the military's constitutional role as an apolitical institution. While certain Hondurans avoid labeling this as a coup, the curfew and the arrests of journalists have made the reality of the situation all too clear.

Yet, it is also clear that the constitutional order broke down before the military acted. In democracies, the military owes allegiance to the Presidency, but the Presidency owes allegiance the rule of law. That chain of command broke down in Honduras, but in reverse order.

The inter-American community, and especially the OAS, shares some of the blame for this mess because it provided virtually no help during the six-month standoff in Honduras. In similar Latin American crises, international actors have sometimes intervened with good results. The most recent example occurred in Bolivia last year, when South American countries forced the government and the opposition to yield in negotiations over constitutional reform. But this spring, the OAS was too busy addressing the non-urgent issue of Cuba's return to its ranks to be bothered with the troubling issue of hyper-presidentialism in Honduras. Largely devoid of international help, the efforts by democratic actors in Honduras to stop Zelaya failed, and the result was the coup.

The lesson for the inter-American community is clear. Unless it develops a more sophisticated mechanism for Latin American democracies to help themselves from hyper-presidentialism, the region will also fail to deal with the other ghosts of its authoritarian past.