Latin America's leaders are right to condemn the coup in Honduras -- but
wrong to give Havana a pass on democracy.
By Andrés Martinez
June 30, 2009
The images were decidedly retro and jarring in their distant
familiarity, as if a grainy old family film long left in the attic had
been brought out for a screening. In defense of la patriala patria, army
troops overpowered el palacio at dawn and placed el presidente on an
airplane to be flown into exile, still wearing his pajamas. Sunday's
coup in Honduras followed a script once so familiar it acquired cliche
status, material even for a Woody Allen sendup.
Military coups are supposed to be a thing of the past in Latin America,
where the consolidation of political stability and electoral democracy
has been a landmark achievement over the last two decades. But events in
Tegucigalpa over the weekend reminded us that this achievement remains
somewhat tenuous. There is nothing inevitable about democracy in Latin
America, it turns out.
In this case, outside reaction to the political drama in Honduras (which
has its nuances, to be sure, including an ousted president who had been
acting in defiance of his nation's Supreme Court) has been swift and
energetic. The Organization of American States, the Obama
administration, leftist allies of ousted President Manuel Zelaya (a
close friend of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez) and other world leaders have
rightly condemned the army's intervention and called for the return of
Zelaya, invoking among other things the Inter-American Democratic
Charter signed in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001.
That's the proper reaction. But the attempted coup also serves to unmask
the hypocrisy surrounding Cuba's possible return to the Organization of
American States and to full participation in the Inter-American
community. Indeed, some of the very same regional players now urging a
united front on behalf of democracy in Honduras are the same leaders who
in recent months have been eager to embrace Cuba and give the tropical
gulag nation a pass on its lack of democracy and basic civil liberties,
citing explicit principles of nonintervention and implicit nostalgia for
anti-gringo revolutionary lore. This despite the fact that the
Inter-American Charter makes democracy a precondition to full-fledged
membership in the OAS.
Fidel Castro himself, a man known for his mischievous sense of irony,
penned a column in the newspaper Granma on Sunday calling events in
Honduras a "test for the OAS." But the real test is whether Latin
America's leading democratic leaders heed the cautionary tale. If
leaders such as Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mexico's Felipe
Calderon and Chile's Michelle Bachelet don't become more forceful
advocates of democracy and human rights in the region, they will be
encouraging a continued rollback of democratic gains -- be it a
corruption of the rule of law by populist demagoguery from the left or
military coups from the right. You can't carve out a Cuba exception to
hemispheric rules without expecting others to exempt themselves as well.
For the region's democratic gains to take root, Latin America's major
democracies will have to start standing up to the Castro brothers. Cuba
has been the canary in this coal mine for a while now, seeing as how the
region had seemingly overcome right-wing military threats to democratic
norms. A willingness to speak out against right-wing coups does appear
to trump sovereignty concerns, as it should. It is no coincidence that
the Inter-American Democratic Charter was passed on 9/11. That date,
after all, already lived in infamy in Latin America as the date on which
Chile's military deposed Salvador Allende in 1973.
But when it comes to Cuba, complacency about what has been gained takes
hold, as Latin American leaders have been reluctant in that case to
apply their values and shared commitment to democracy, partly out of
fear of appearing to be a tool of American imperialism. This is one of
several reasons the unilateral U.S. embargo on the island nation is so
counterproductive (another being that it has failed over decades to
The sooner the embargo is lifted, the sooner Washington can prod major
Latin American democracies to press Cuba for democratic change. An end
to the U.S. embargo is not the same as welcoming Cuba into the community
of Latin American democracies, and critics in this country of
Washington's failed approach shouldn't fall into the trap of also giving
Havana's communist tyrants a pass for their behavior.
Uncle Sam has a storied history of hypocrisy in the hemisphere --
decrying Cuba's lack of freedoms while cozying up to right-wing
dictatorships. That's why it was artful of the Obama administration this
month to have gone along with the OAS repeal of its Cold War-inspired
1962 anti-Cuban resolution, at a conference in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Repeal did not make Cuba free to join the Inter-American community; it
still needs to embrace the hemisphere's democratic values and commitment
to human rights.
The reluctance among Latin American leaders to hold Cuba accountable is
disheartening. Although U.S. diplomats skillfully threaded the needle in
San Pedro Sula early this month, ceding ground without going along with
an unconditional readmission of that country to the OAS, leaders like
Bachelet and Lula irresponsibly fly off to Havana to bask in the Cold
War relic's romantic associations, treating the Castros like esteemed
counterparts. The left now matches Washington's former selectivity in
doling out moral judgments, invoking a transnational legal commitment to
democracy in the case of Honduras (and briefly during the failed coup
attempt against Chavez in 2002) but disregarding it in the case of Cuba.
Such selective championing of freedom could prove fatal to the cause in
the region, by further emboldening autocratic forces on both left and right.
Andrés Martinez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Honduras and the Cuba exception - Los Angeles Times (30 June 2009)