How to fix the mess in Honduras

Why Honduras must bring back the very man most responsible for the crisis.

By Kevin Casas-Zamora

The old demons that have given Latin America a tragic political history are dormant but hardly dead. On Sunday, Honduras's president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the military, capping weeks of tension brought about by the president's ill-conceived attempt to engineer his own reelection. As U.S. founding father John Adams might have put it, Zelaya chose to have a government of men and not of laws.

Zelaya's fatal mistake was in organizing a de facto referendum to test the idea of allowing him a second term. Honduras's Constitution explicitly forbids holding referendums -- let alone an unsanctioned "popular consultation" -- to amend it and, more specifically, to modify the presidential term. Unsurprisingly, the president's idea met with resistance from Congress, nearly all political parties (including his own), the press, the business community, electoral authorities, and, crucially, the Supreme Court, which deemed the whole endeavor illegal.

Last week, when Zelaya ordered the armed forces to distribute the electoral material to carry out what he called an "opinion poll," the military commander refused to comply and was summarily dismissed (he was later reinstated by the Supreme Court). The president then cited the troubling history of military intervention in Honduran politics, a past that the country -- under more prudent governments -- had made great strides in leaving behind in the past two decades. He neglected to mention that the order he had issued was illegal.

Then Zelaya -- a late convert to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian doctrine -- introduced an ideological rationale for his ambition: creating a "participatory" democracy in Honduras and subverting the country's dominant oligarchy (of which he is the quintessential product). Chávez and Fidel Castro, in an ironic turn of events given the two men's history, sternly denounced the danger of a military takeover in Honduras.

There was, of course, nothing ideological about Zelaya's plan. He never bothered to explain what kind of constitution he wanted, other than one that allowed his own reelection. In that respect, Zelaya is less a disciple of Chávez than of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, another unsavory character bereft of any ideal other than staying in power by hook or by crook.

Now the Honduran military has responded in kind: An illegal referendum has met an illegal military intervention, with the avowed intention of protecting the Constitution. Zelaya's civilian opponents, meanwhile, are celebrating. For the past week, the Honduran Congress has waxed lyrical about the armed forces as the guarantors of the Constitution, a disturbing notion for Latin Americans. At the very least, we are witnessing in Honduras the return of the unfortunate role of the military as the ultimate referee in political conflicts among civilian leaders, a huge step back in the region's consolidation of democracy.

That's why Zelaya, though he bears by far the greater responsibility for this crisis, must be reinstated in his position as the legitimate president of Honduras. The Organization of American States, the neighboring countries, and the U.S. government (which is still enormously influential in Honduras) should demand no less. They should also call upon all political actors in Honduras to take a deep breath and do what mature democracies do: allow the law to deal with those who try to step outside it. If Zelaya must be prosecuted for his harebrained attempt to subvert the Honduran Constitution, then let the courts proceed as rigorously as possible. And the same applies to the coup perpetrators. If Honduras is to have a decent future, its politicians and soldiers, in equal measure, must learn that the road to democracy and development runs through the rule of law.

Dark clouds are gathering again over Central America, and the United States would do well to pay attention. The current crisis in Honduras, the governance problems in Guatemala, and the ongoing destruction of democracy in Nicaragua form an ominous trend. U.S. President Barack Obama now has the opportunity to show both friends and foes in the Western Hemisphere that the United States has finally decided to side unequivocally with democracy -- and that the rule of law matters in Tegucigalpa as much as it does in Washington.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was vice president and minister of planning of Costa Rica from 2006 to 2007.

Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images