The Honduran government was protecting democracy and respecting the rule of law when it ousted President Manual Zelaya, the democratically elected leader who has worked since coming into office to dismantle the very democracy that elected him. Unfortunately, much of the international community—including the United States—has condemned the action.
Among those coming to the defense of Zelaya are many women’s organizations in the U.S., Europe and throughout Latin American. Many seem sympathetic to Zelaya because he shares their views on domestic policy issues and has called himself a “feminist.” Yet these women’s organizations should not give their support so cheaply. Women’s groups around the world should recognize that the most important thing a government can do to protect women is to respect the rule of law, embrace democracy, and protect individual rights.
It is on those measures that Zelaya has failed spectacularly. Widespread government corruption, alliances with South American dictators such as Noriega, Castro, and Chavez, and limitations on freedom of the press have plagued the Zelaya administration and left the country’s democracy weakened.
Zelaya’s corrupt activities have also cost the country important aid dollars. In 2005, the Millennium Challenge Account—a foreign aid program that provides funding to countries that respect human rights and civil liberties—gave Honduras a relatively high rating in political and civil liberties and provided $215 million to be used for road infrastructure and agriculture diversification. But by 2008, under Zelaya’s presidency, Honduras failed the corruption indicator required for continued funding.
Zelaya popularity with women’s organizations stems from his promise to expand the welfare state and his rhetorical embrace of feminism. It is a tool used by many socialist dictators. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, loves to jump on the feminist bandwagon, saying “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Without the true liberation of women, the liberation of the people would be impossible, and I am convinced that an authentic socialist should also be an authentic feminist.”
Yet this rhetoric rarely translates into policy. The Central American Women’s Network (CAWN), a London-based women’s organization that monitors issues in Honduras all but admitted this in a letter condemning the so called “coup,” saying Zelaya’s contributions to Honduran women have been “modest but real.” The letter cites a number of initiatives that have nothing to do with women’s equality, but rather are more general domestic initiatives. They praise Zelaya for “raising the minimum wage, abolishing fees for primary education, introducing school meals, expanding the government’s program of child immunizations, and bringing electricity to more rural and urban homes.” The letter then goes on to say that, “While not directly aimed at promoting women’s rights, such measures have clearly been good for women. But these advances are all put at risk by the coup.”
This letter suggests that modern feminism is really about support for socialism and bigger government, not women’s rights. They are less concerned about the integrity of the government, so long as that government provides a big enough social safety net.
Yet those really concerned about women’s advancement will recognize that women are most “liberated” in nations with healthy and transparent democracies. A quick survey of nations proves this—women do best in countries with solid democracies in place.
President Obama agrees. On Saturday, the President delivered a major foreign policy speech in Ghana in which he said “history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable and more successful than governments that do not […] In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success - strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.”
The President is right—the thing that matters most to women in Honduras is liberty for all. Not for women at the expense of men, not the consideration of women’s issues above all others, but freedom and self-determination for all citizens.
Manuel Zelaya is an enemy of freedom. He is an enemy of the rule of law and democracy. This makes him an enemy of Honduran men and women alike. His ouster is good for all Hondurans.