As I made clear before vacation, I have also been baffled by the U.S. government’s reaction to the deposition of Zelaya last month. Bunch cites Chris Caldwell’s latest on the Honduran constitutional crisis, and in the article Caldwell reiterates things that critics of the administration were quite rightly saying in the first few days after Zelaya’s removal from office. The more time that has passed, the clearer it becomes that Zelaya was in the wrong and deserved to be removed. The curfew and restrictions that the transitional government put in place in their initial panic and overreaction are now gone. That has not stopped the efforts by the OAS to try to re-install Zelaya, but these efforts seem sure to fail. It is time for Washington to accept the fait accompli, recognize the new government and push for an end to the attempted international isolation of Honduras.
The one thing that has bothered me about most of the other criticisms of Obama’s response is how obsessed with Hugo Chavez they always seems to be. Caldwell’s article also has this flaw. The Honduran crisis interests many of these critics not for any of the lessons about the dangers of executive usurpation and the importance of constitutional rules to the functioning of democratic government that it might offer, but because they choose to see it primarily as a battle between Chavismo and its enemies. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Chavez is irrelevant to what has happened in Honduras, but Chavez is certainly not centrally important, either, yet so much of the criticism of Obama from the right has fixated on Obama siding with Chavez and his allies. This invests Chavez with far more importance in all of this than he deserves.
One might call Zelaya’s removal a “setback” for Chavez, as Caldwell does, except that the “success” of Chavez’s influence on Zelaya was partly responsible for generating the tremendous opposition to Zelaya. What this means is that Chavez ultimately loses influence even in those places where he seems to be winning. The Kirchners in Argentina have been very cozy with Chavez as well, and they are already experiencing popular repudiation in recent congressional elections. The rest of the region tolerates, but does not follow, him. All over Latin America the backlash against neoliberalism that aided Chavez’s influence has not translated into sustainable support for Chavez or his proteges. Hawks in this country are so interested in building Chavez up as a regional menace that they cannot see how weak and unimportant he really is.
What is telling about the background to the crisis is how weak Chavez’s preferred politician had become and how unpopular the import of anything resembling Chavismo or “participatory democracy” seems to have been. If Zelaya was so spectacularly unsuccessful in promoting such an agenda in one of the poorest of Central American nations, and if he formed such a broad consensus of political, military and religious institutions against him in the process, Chavez’s influence outside Venezuela is perhaps even more limited and strategically insignificant than I had thought. Perhaps Honduras’ elite feared that Zelaya might somehow succeeed in imitating Chavez, but the important thing to remember about this is that Zelaya made his legal removal possible simply by taking the first steps in that direction whether or not he had any chance of succeeding. To put it another way, it never mattered legally whether Caesar intended to become a dictator after he crossed the Rubicon, but simply whether he had entered Italy under arms. Even if Zelaya was certain to fail in changing the constitution, he was not permitted to make the attempt. Surely Zelaya’s defenders, so deeply concerned with proper procedure as they are, can see now why his removal was required.