When Honduran leader Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo visits the White House today, it will be a watershed moment in the Central American country’s diplomatic rehabilitation. More than two years have passed since Honduran authorities removed Manuel Zelaya from the presidency to block his unconstitutional, autocratic power grab. Five months after Zelaya’s ouster, Honduras held a democratic national election, and Lobo, a member of the conservative National Party, won with over 56 percent of the vote. Yet it was not until this past June that Honduras was formally readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS), which had suspended the country following its 2009 “military coup.”
Of course, despite what the OAS and the Obama administration said at the time, the removal of Zelaya was not a military coup, but rather a legally justified defense of democracy. Indeed, an August 2009 Law Library of Congress study concluded that “The judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.” The OAS should never have expelled Honduras in the first place, and it should have reinstated the country much sooner. In June 2010, a full year before Honduras officially returned to the OAS, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “President Lobo has done everything he said he would do. He was elected through a free and fair, legitimate election. He provided political amnesty. He set up a truth commission. He has been very committed to pursuing a policy of reintegration.”
Lobo deserved Clinton’s praise. Earlier this year, unfortunately, he agreed to a foolish compromise that permitted the exiled Zelaya to return to Honduras. Brokered in part by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, a robust Zelaya supporter, the deal also gave Zelaya a green light to rejoin Honduran politics. Upon arriving back in his home country on May 28, he brashly declared, “We’re pushing for a Constituent Assembly to retake power. I came to participate in what the people want—revolutionary processes that will make this country move forward.”
In other words, Zelaya remains intent on subverting Honduran institutions and completing the project that was thwarted in 2009. By allowing a reckless Chávez disciple to reenter the political arena, Lobo has created the conditions for future instability and unrest, perhaps even violent unrest. Zelaya is a proven threat to democratic freedom: an aspiring autocrat who tried to overthrow the constitutional order. He has now been emboldened by Lobo to continue pursuing his radical, Chávez-style campaign.
Zelaya’s return was a huge victory for the Venezuelan president. So was Lobo’s decision to betray Israel: On August 26, Tegucigalpa formally recognized the existence of an independent Palestinian state. The Israeli ambassador to Honduras described it as “a blow to the heart of Israel.” (Caracas has actively encouraged and celebrated the recent wave of Palestinian recognition among Latin American countries. In a September 20 letter to the United Nations, Chávez accused Israel and the United States of perpetrating a “Palestinian genocide.”)
While Lobo has attempted to boost the cause of Palestinian statehood, he has failed adequately to address his country’s serious domestic problems. Gang and drug violence has spiked throughout Central America, and it is devastating Honduran society. According to a World Bank study, the total economic costs of crime and violence in Honduras are equivalent to 9.6 percent of GDP. On September 10, Honduran security minister Oscar Álvarez resigned from office, lamenting that he had been unable to make significant progress in reducing police corruption. “I didn’t have the economic support,” he told a press conference in Tegucigalpa. “I was affecting big interests of drug trafficking, money laundering and kidnapping.” As Geoffrey Ramsey of InSight Crime reports, Álvarez has said that the Honduran police “are now more thoroughly infiltrated by criminal groups than at any point in history, as evidenced by the fact that there have been several cases of police working for local mafia groups.” His efforts to expose this corruption and remove corrupt officers brought Álvarez into conflict with top police leaders.
At the moment, Honduras is clearly plagued by a growing security crisis. It may soon have another political crisis on its hands, if Zelaya insists on promoting his radical agenda. By sacking him in 2009, Honduran officials saved a fragile democracy. By allowing him to return to politics, Lobo has put that same democracy at increased risk.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.