Reuters Photos
Honduran soldiers arrive at the presidential residency in Tegucigalpa.

When Honduran president Manuel Zelaya–who was rousted out of his bed on Sunday morning by a detachment of armed soldiers and forced into exile still in his pajamas–took office in early 2006, unionists, peasant activists and reformers expected little of the center-right politician, a rancher and member of the establishment Liberal Party. Neither did the handful of elite Honduran families who, bankrolled by foreign finance, control their country’s media, banking, agricultural, manufacturing and narcotics industries. “You are only temporary, while we are permanent,” they told him soon after his inauguration, according one report, reminding Zelaya that he served at their pleasure.

But the realities of governing in a country as poor as Honduras–more than 60 percent of its population live in poverty, more than 50 percent in extreme poverty–tends to reinforce a left-wing slant. Perhaps it was the imperious and imperial behavior of George W. Bush’s ambassador to Honduras, described by Zelaya as “barbarous.” Or maybe it was the fact that the Central American Free Trade Agreement, rather than delivering promised development, worsened his country’s trade deficit with the United States while driving low wages even lower, as Honduras competed with its equally impoverished neighbors for investment. Or perhaps it was the US Food and Drug Administration’s unilateral ban of Honduran cantaloupes because they were supposedly tainted with salmonella, though the FDA offered no proof of the charge, a move Zelaya called “unjust.”

Whatever the reason, Zelaya shifted course, and over the past two years he has adopted a progressive agenda. As a solution to the disastrous “war on drugs,” which has turned Central America into a well-traversed trans-shipment corridor for narcotraficantes–profitable for some, deadly for many–he has proposed the legalization of some narcotics. Earlier this year at the Summit of the Americas, he took the lead in pushing Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. And he has steered his country into both the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas and Petrocaribe, two regional economic alliances backed by Venezuela meant to wean Latin America off its extreme dependence on the US market.

This left turn is less ideological than pragmatic. Honduras is so broke it “can’t even build a road without getting a loan from the World Bank,” Zelaya once complained. But that money comes in “dribbles, held up years by paperwork” and often accompanied by onerous terms. In contrast, he said, Petrocaribe financing for infrastructure investment came all at once, at extremely low interest, with no conditions, which helped free up other scarce funds for social services. Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela also provides Honduras with 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day, also on very generous terms.

For those who presume to rule behind the scenes, Zelaya took a step too far when he began to push for the convocation of a constituent assembly in order to democratize Honduras’s notoriously exclusionary political system. Expectedly, these efforts were opposed by the national Congress and the Supreme Court, both of which are controlled by an inbred clique of career politicians and judges invested in keeping Honduran politics restricted–including members of Zelaya’s Liberal Party. For its part, the US media seem intent on reporting on events in Honduras through the prism of its obsession with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The New York Times, for instance, ran an op-ed by free-market ideologue Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who claimed that the most unfortunate aspect of the coup is not that it derailed Honduran democracy but–wait for it–that it has allowed Chávez to defend democracy and thus claim the “moral high ground.” Vargas Llosa describes Zelaya as a man of privilege, an “heir to the family fortune” who had “devoted decades to his agriculture and forestry enterprises” and who had run for president on a conservative platform that included supporting CAFTA. Misleadingly, Vargas Llosa attributes Zelaya’s political turn not to the absolute failure of CAFTA and the fiasco of the “war on drugs” but to Chávez’s seductions. The US media have also falsely yet unanimously presented Zelaya’s moves as a power grab, an effort to end term limits to allow him to run for re-election. But the referendum Zelaya was pushing–which prompted the coup–asked citizens only if there should be a vote on “whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political Constitution.” In other words, Hondurans weren’t being asked to vote on term limits or even on revising the Constitution. They were simply being asked to vote on whether or not to have a vote on revising the Constitution, with the terms of that revision being left to an elected assembly.

Latin America has demonstrated a remarkable degree of unanimity in condemning the coup and demanding Zelaya’s return to power. “We cannot accept or recognize any new government other than President Zelaya,” said Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The Organization of American States has stated that it will refuse to make any concessions to the coup plotters and that it will be open only to dialogue that would facilitate the “return of President Zelaya to his legitimate position.” Other Central American nations have recalled their ambassadors from Honduras and have taken steps to isolate the country until democracy is restored.

Barack Obama, too, has issued strong words against Zelaya’s overthrow: “I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections,” he said. “The region has made enormous progress over the past twenty years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”

The State Department, though, has been more circumspect. At first it was reluctant to use the word “coup” to describe Zelaya’s overthrow, since to do so would trigger automatic sanctions, including the suspension of foreign aid and the withdrawal of US troops. Honduras hosts Soto Cano Air Force Base, the main US military base in the region, and Washington is concerned with keeping that installation fully operational. Likewise, according to John Negroponte–who as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s was implicated in the cover-up of hundreds of death-squad executions–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to “preserve some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum” and presumably from his other populist policies.

It seems like what the United States might be angling for in Honduras could be the “Haiti Option.” In 1994 Bill Clinton worked to restore Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was deposed in a coup, but only on the condition that Aristide would support IMF and World Bank policies. The result was a disaster, leading to deepening poverty, escalating polarization and, in 2004, a second coup against Aristide, this one fully backed by the Bush White House.

Though there is no indication that the United States is considering using military force to restore Zelaya–as Clinton did for Aristide in 1994–Washington should follow the lead of the rest of the Americas and resist the temptation to attach conditions to its support for his return to office. Last week, during a meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a reporter asked Obama if he would apologize for America’s role in the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power (and led to the torture of Bachelet and her father, who died as a result). Obama demurred and said that he was “interested in going forward, not looking backward.”

As Honduras teeters on the brink–as of this writing, the new regime has cracked down on the media and instituted a curfew, with reports of escalating repression by security forces against Zelaya supporters–one way to move forward would be to provide unconditional support for Zelaya’s immediate return.

“This is a golden opportunity,” Costa Rica’s former vice president, Kevin Casas-Zamora, said , for Obama “to make a clear break with the past and show that he is unequivocally siding with democracy, even if [some in Washington] don’t necessarily like the guy.”