Honduras Tears Down a Berlin Wall

After the polls closed on the evening of Honduras’ historic election, a beaming clerk at my hotel exclaimed, "We won. We didn’t know if we’d ever get to vote again. Just by having the freedom to vote, we won."

In Honduras as an international election observer, I witnessed what could be called a re-birth of a nation. Criticized by other nations, cut off from U.S. aid, shunned by the Organization of American States, Honduras stood virtually alone. Yet Hondurans willingly risked the wrath of the international community for one purpose: to retain their freedom by upholding their Constitution.

"We’d rather be isolated from the world than under Hugo Chavez for years," Martha Lorena de Casco, Honduras Deputy Foreign Minister, said.

Five months before, President Manuel Zelaya had attempted to amend the Constitution which limits presidents to one four-year term. Written in 1982 after decades of coups and dictators, the Constitution carefully lays out protections against future power-grabs. Hondurans understood what Zelaya was trying to do. The year before he had aligned with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ALBA, a block of socialist countries. Now he was following Chavez’s pattern of changing the nation’s Constitution to stay in power.

Instead, Honduras showed the world how to unite against a would-be dictator.

Honduras’ Congress, which must approve referendums, voted against Zelaya’s attempt to re-write the Constitution. The Attorney General filed suit and secured a court order halting the referendum planned for June 28.  Zelaya changed the name from “referendum” to “opinion survey” The court ruled that this was still illegal. Zelaya had the ballots printed in Venezuela and ordered the chief of the armed forces to proceed with the survey. When the general refused, Zelaya fired him. The Supreme Court ruled the firing was illegal and reinstated him.

The ballots were seized by customs. On June 25, Zelaya organized a mob to break into the warehouse and grab the ballots. At that point the Attorney General asked the Supreme Court for an arrest warrant on charges of treason, abuse of power and other crimes. The court directed the army, which, under the Constitution, is responsible for enforcing compliance with presidential succession, to arrest Zelaya.

The military went one step farther than it should. Rather than take him to jail to stand trial, they whisked him out of the country. Some feared that if Zelaya were in the country he would incite violence to reinstate himself.

Following the Constitutional line of succession, the leader of the Congress Roberto Micheletti became interim president. The military remains under civilian control. Preparations for the November 29th elections for president, congress and mayors went forward — even though Zelaya had previously refused to release the funds to pay for the elections. The two major presidential candidates (neither Zelaya or Micheletti were running) had been chosen nearly a year before.

Yet the international community labeled this a “coup.” Some called the scheduled elections illegitimate and demanded that Zelaya be reinstated. Ignoring Zelaya’s numerous offenses and obvious intents, and the meticulous legal steps taken by the Congress, Attorney General, and Supreme Court and overall restraint of the military, these critics in high places revealed their own disrespect for the rule of law.

One young woman recounted to me that Hondurans couldn’t understand why the international community did not criticize Zelaya’s actions. “It was when the Supreme Court ruled against him that the people regained their confidence,” she said.

It was clear: The election became a referendum on the Honduran government. The citizens would not just be electing a president. Their participation would be a vote for freedom and the rule of law.

Thousands peacefully demonstrated in support of the interim government. A small group of citizens traveled to Washington, D.C. to explain to congressmen and civil society leaders what the mainstream media was not reporting. TV shows explained the voting process step-by-step to encourage people to vote. A meticulous system was arranged to guarantee the transparency of the election.

Zelaya snuck back into the country and hid in the Brazilian embassy. He told people to boycott the elections and staked a claim upon every non-voter as a show of support for himself. His followers and Honduras’ detractors warned of violence.

Honduras became a magnet for people fighting for freedom. Nearly 400 international observers traveled to witness and ensure the integrity of the election. And, for many, to show Hondurans that they were not alone.

Armando Valladares, who spent 22 years in Cuba’s prisons for refusing to display a sign promoting communism, came. A former Attorney General in Venezuela who fled Chavez’s rule and lives in asylum in the U.S. came. Cuban exiles under the banner of Mothers Against Repression came. Nicaraguans opposing Daniel Ortega (who recently had their Constitution reinterpreted to allow him to run for president again) came.

A former member of Bolivia’s Congress, who resigned when President Evo Morales began consolidating power like Chavez had, came. "They tried to build a Berlin Wall and Honduras tore it down," he told me.

Working with the weight of global suspicion and the fate of the country on their shoulder, the Supreme Election Tribunal consulted with U.S. and other officials to organize an election that would be beyond reproach.

A few weeks before, I had served as an election official in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. The system set up by Honduras was similar but in some ways superior.

Each polling place was manned by six people from different political parties. Each voter had to show photo I.D. The voter rolls list not only names and addresses but also pictures of the voters. The ballots included pictures of the candidates.

The ballot boxes had translucent windows. The counting of the ballots was open to the public. Curtains were pulled back to allow people to peer into the rooms. One at a time, the ballots were removed, read aloud, held up for others to see, then passed to several poll workers to tally.

At polling places my team visited we found that about two-thirds of the people had voted. An astonishing turn-out considering that every adult is on the voter rolls (unlike the U.S. which is comprised of those registered to vote).

That evening at the central hotel headquarters, the Supreme Election Tribunal announced the victor. But among the hundreds gathered for the celebration, who would be the next president was an afterthought. “We won,” reverberated throughout. “Democracy won.”

But one step remained.

A U.S. brokered agreement required Honduras’ Congress to vote to reinstate Zelaya until the new president is sworn in on January 27, 2010. Three days after the election, Congress assembled. One by one, they recounted his misdeeds for the record, for the world to hear, then voted.

Putting a nail in the coffin of Zelaya’s attempt to stay in power, Congress voted 111 to 14 against reinstating the Hugo Chavez wanna-be.

Perhaps God is smiling on this poor country. When Evangelical and Catholics pastors learned about Zelaya’s referendum, they jointly called for a week of prayer and fasting. A few days into it, Zelaya was ousted.

The struggle is not over. Other countries that tried to block the election refuse to recognize the results. Many Hondurans realize they have a new challenge of rooting out a culture of corruption. But they’re emboldened by this fresh start.

“Honduras didn’t have an identity before. Now it does,” a pastor told me. Another woman elaborated, “Before we were known for corruption. Now we have a new image and we must nurture it.”