WASHINGTON -- It took the Obama administration eight days to figure out whether Iranians being gunned down for protesting a fraudulent election and demanding basic civil liberties deserved to be acknowledged by the president of the United States. It took the O-Team less than eight hours to side with Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega over the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.
As we now have come to expect, Mr. Obama got it wrong again, but this time, nobody noticed. The U.S. news media, preoccupied with the sudden demise of Michael Jackson, ignored the event in Central America. For those who care about things more important than the passing of a "pop music legend," here's the rest of the story:
Manuel Zelaya, a wealthy rancher and agribusiness executive and a self-described "poor farmer," won a four-year term as Honduran president in November 2005, with 49.8 percent of the vote. Article 374 of the Honduran Constitution bars the nation's chief executive from serving consecutive terms. Apparently, one term wasn't enough for Zelaya, a protege of Venezuela's strongman, Hugo Chavez, and Nicaragua's phobic anti-American leader, Daniel Ortega.
Late last year, as the Honduran economy tanked and unemployment grew to nearly 28 percent, Zelaya forced Elvin Santos, the country's elected vice president, to resign and began holding conversations with Chavez and Ortega on how to hold on to power. In lengthy Chavez-like populist speeches, he denounced the U.S. and wealthy landowners and linked himself with leftists in the Honduran labor movement. On March 23, he issued an executive decree directing a national referendum on a Venezuela-style constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution in time for presidential and legislative elections in November. The Obama-Clinton State Department was mute about all of this.
Unfortunately for Zelaya's aspirations, the Honduran Constitution requires that amendments be passed by a two-thirds vote of the country's unicameral Congress during two consecutive sessions. By late May, the Honduran Congress, the Honduran Supreme Court, the commissioner for human rights, and the Honduran electoral tribunal all had overwhelmingly declared the referendum unconstitutional. Zelaya ignored the people's representatives, had ballots printed in Venezuela, and announced that the vote would take place June 28. Again, the O-Team was silent.
In keeping with the rule of law, Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi took the case to court. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled the referendum to be illegal and ordered the ballots to be confiscated. Late on June 23, Zelaya countermanded the court order and directed the army to distribute the ballots. Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the chief of staff of the Honduran military, sought legal opinions and decided not to distribute them. The following day, Zelaya accepted the resignation of the minister of defense, Edmundo Orellana, and fired Vasquez.
The Honduran Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Vasquez firing illegal and reinstated him June 25. That prompted Zelaya and a group of supporters to seize the ballots and issue another executive decree, which directed government officials to set up 15,000 polling stations at schools and community buildings across the country. In response to a request from Attorney General Rubi, the Honduran Congress -- controlled by Zelaya's own Liberal Party -- opened an investigation into the president's mental stability and fitness to govern. Zelaya replied with a two-hour broadcast harangue, in which he claimed: "Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me, because I am honest. I'm a free president, and nobody scares me."
On Sunday, just hours before the referendum was to begin, the Honduran army, acting on a warrant issued by the Honduran Supreme Court, arrested Zelaya and sent him, in his pajamas, into exile in Costa Rica. The Honduran Congress affirmed Zelaya's departure and, in accord with the constitution, named Roberto Micheletti, who had been president of the Congress, as interim president of the country.
It has been downhill from there. Chavez, Ortega, Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales immediately condemned the "coup" and demanded that Zelaya be restored to power. Chavez went so far as to threaten military action. When asked about these events Sunday, the O-Team punted the issue to the Organization of American States, calling for "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter." Now there's a powerful statement of support for a constitutional process and the institutions of democracy. Meanwhile, the Clinton State Department is said to be looking at cutting off aid to the impoverished country.
The O-Team doesn't seem to grasp that simply holding an election does not guarantee a democracy. Adolf Hitler was elected. Hugo Chavez was elected. The Castro brothers were "elected." When potentates decide that the rule of law does not matter, that constitutional restrictions on power can be overcome by executive fiat, the people inevitably suffer. It's a point to remember as we celebrate our own nation's 233rd Independence Day.