Hondurans resisting former President Manuel Zelaya’s efforts to stay in power are not mounting a coup d’etat. On the contrary, they are fighting against the all-too-common practice of past Latin American leaders who choose, against the rule of law and democracy, to stay in power. It is so common a problem that there is a specific name for it: continuismo.
Latin America has had a poor record of democratic government. There have been three competing political traditions: a feeble — but in recent decades growing stronger — democratic tradition and two pervasive anti-democratic ones. One of the latter is the too-familiar military coup, in which the armed forces overthrow the government and then a military dictator or a junta rules. But the other one, which is just as important but not as well known, has grown so common in the past two decades that it has its own name in Spanish. It is continuismo, meaning the continuity in power of a caudillo or strong man (not necessarily a military officer) who through demagogic means and repression extends his tenure for years, even decades. Regrettably, this authoritarian, antidemocratic tradition has become stronger in the recent past.
Usually, it begins with a legitimate election. The president is chosen to govern for a usual four or six year fixed term allowed by the constitution. But then — either when that term runs out or even before — the president decides that he does not need to be re-elected and decides to ignore or overturn the law (and often the nation’s constitution) and remain in office. The authoritarian culture manifests itself when the president uses all the tools and power of the executive branch to overcome the weak checks and balances that exist in that country, and is able to maintain himself in power long after the time for which he was originally elected.
Having lived that historical experience, most Latin American nations — as expressed in their constitutions — have a provision much like the 22nd Amendment to the American Constitution, stipulating that the president can only serve a limited number of terms. In most of those nations, such prohibitions are strict enough to say that a president can only serve one term.
This was the case until very recently in, for example, Argentina. When he was elected, President Menem was limited to serve one six-year term. But Menem, using democratic means, called for a plebiscite which resulted in rewriting the Argentinean constitution so that he could stay for two four year terms. Much the same took place in neighboring Brazil under President Cardoso. In both cases, however, the process followed well prescribed democratic courses, and, after serving the newly defined presidential terms, both presidents yielded their offices to their democratically elected successors.
During the ’60s and ’70s, the radical, authoritarian, anti-democratic left tried to come to power using violent means, such as urban terrorism and guerrilla warfare. But they were defeated in Uruguay, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Only in Castro’s Cuba did guerrilla tactics succeed, and, as a consequence, the anti-democratic left understood that a change in tactics was necessary.
As a result they began to experiment with alternative ways to reach power. They found a new way in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, who himself was a military man and had lead a failed military coup in attempting to overthrow a democratically-elected government, served years in prison, was pardoned, and eventually ran and won an election for president. Chavez used his enormous early popularity to gradually begin dismantling the country’s institutional framework until the legislature and the judiciary branches became mere rubber stamps for his authoritarian decisions.
And, ironically, all these profoundly anti-democratic measures were masked by a series of electoral victories. (Even when Chavez loses a plebiscite, he finds another way to continue in power). A nation has a democratic system not just because it has elections. A whole set of other institutions are needed to support and nourish a democratic polity. Such things as an independent judiciary, a legislature with real power, civilian control of the military, a free press and the whole host of checks and balances so familiar to an American audience are also an integral part of a democratic form of government.
Having seen how Chavez’s electoral trappings have worked so well to confuse and misguide international opinion, others have started to emulate his success at continuismo. It is happening right now in Bolivia where Evo Morales has done the same thing and is well on the way to replicating Venezuela. In Ecuador, Mr. Correa is doing exactly the same thing, though it is not as far advanced as Chavez and Morales are in their respective nations.
It is in this context of the anti-democratic, authoritarianlLeft deploying a new way to obtain and maintain power that the recent events in Honduras have to be judged. President Zelaya tried, but so far has failed, to replicate Chavez’s success. And the reason should be obvious to all who have been watching political trends in the region during the past decade. The Hondurans have, in effect, literally seen the movie. They know how it ends and told Zelaya that they would not let him play the movie in their own theater.
To say this is a traditional military coup d’etat is not only to misjudge the actual events in Tegucigalpa (the military are not ruling the country, an elected member of Zelaya’s own political party is acting president and has stated that the constitutionally mandated presidential election scheduled for later this year will take place) but, most importantly, it also ignores the actual provisions of the country’s constitution. Such is the concern to avoid and prevent continuismo that it stipulates that the mere advocacy of changing the presidential term of office is enough to immediately dismiss an office holder and exclude the offender from political life for a period of ten years.
The long and bitter Latin American political experience has shown the danger of presidential powers being used to let demagogic leaders perpetuate themselves in power. The Hondurans are acting on that painfully learnt lesson and have taken measures — now nearly universally misunderstood — to preserve and not to overthrow their democratic institutional framework.
It was Zelaya who, by his actions, really threatened the democratic system and who should be condemned by all those who wish to see small and poor Honduras continue to develop as a viable democracy in Central America.
To see Zelaya as a victim, as the OAS, the U.N. and our own State Department do, is to see the situation upside down. One indication of the absurdity of this charade is that the expulsion of Honduras from the OAS will take place just weeks after the same body voted to re-admit Castro’s Cuba to its fold. If Cuba should be a member of the OAS, then, surely, Honduras also belongs in the OAS.