(1,436 words, 5 minute 44 second reading time)
When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was already studying and following the U.S. role in Latin America. Back then, at the sunset of the Cold War and the Reagan presidency, the deal was clear. If you were a dictator in the hemisphere, the United States would support you as long as you were pro-free market and U.S-friendly. There was a period during the Carter administration when that wasn’t as true, but the Reagan years made it truer than ever.
During the years I was in school, that started to become less of an iron law. In 1988, Washington urged Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to respect the result of the plebiscite that removed him from power. In 1989, U.S. troops kicked out Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; while no big-stick invasion like this should ever be repeated, it was unusual to see the U.S. government act against a right-wing dictator—a former ally—after he denied an election result. The Clinton administration’s 1994 support for restoring deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a remarkable shift, as the coup government was more pliant to U.S. business interests than was Aristide.
Pro-U.S. leaders with authoritarian tendencies or bad human rights records still got a pass, to a point (Fujimori in Peru, Uribe in Colombia). But for a good twenty-plus years in Latin America, Washington’s support wasn’t guaranteed.
It’s heartbreaking to see that changing, fast, in our new era of “illiberal democracies” (a category that may now include our own). Once elected, illiberal leaders make populist appeals while undoing institutional checks and balances. It becomes very hard to remove them from office, and after a while the democracy loses even its forms and people lose basic freedoms. We see these tendencies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua (not to mention Turkey, Hungary, or the Philippines), but also among non-leftists like Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras and candidates like Peru’s Keiko Fujimori and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
In June 2009, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Washington. At the time, the ardently pro-U.S. leader was pushing hard to change Colombia’s constitution to allow him to pursue a third term in office, which would have disfigured the country’s democracy. By gently but firmly voicing disapproval at a White House appearance, President Barack Obama dealt a solid blow to Uribe’s aspirations. This was another milestone in the inconsistent, but real, trend of U.S. support for democracy over blind fealty.
It may have been its high-water mark, even: the trend was about to undergo a withering setback. Obama’s exchange with Uribe happened one day after a military-backed coup in Honduras deposed elected president Manuel Zelaya, the biggest single democratic reversal since the 2001 adoption of the OAS Democratic Charter. (Venezuela, too, suffered an unsuccessful coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, and a thousand tiny moves by Chávez himself to chip away at democracy. But the Honduran coup was a single, successful blow.)
President Obama opposed that coup for a few months. All U.S. security aid was cut off, though his administration would not trigger a law making the cutoff irreversible by calling it a “military” coup. By October 2009, though, his administration caved, saying it would respect the result of November elections that elected a Zelaya opponent who had backed the coup. This ended pressure for Zelaya’s removal and legitimized an election campaign carried out in a climate of post-coup fear and intimidation. The coup plotters won.
They won, to a significant degree, thanks to a well-funded lobbying campaign in Washington. Coup president Roberto Micheletti’s paid shills found a staunch ally in Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). The archconservative senator put holds on two of the new administration’s diplomatic nominations, leaving it without an assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere or an ambassador to Brazil.
By 2016, Jim DeMint was elsewhere: he had left the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, the giant conservative policy research organization that CNN and others called “Trump’s think tank.” The group DeMint headed (he left Heritage this year) drafted many of what would become the Trump administration’s policy proposals. In other words: the small but vocal sector of Washington that openly supported the 2009 Honduras coup is now running U.S. foreign policy.
Because of that, the idea of standing up to pro-U.S. authoritarians was already foundering after Trump’s inauguration. In May, Trump’s secretary of state even made explicit that human rights promotion is now a peripheral mission for U.S. foreign policy. “Those are our values. Those are not our policies,” Rex Tillerson told diplomats.
Right now, this reversal is reverberating through Washington’s tepid response to likely election fraud by a pro-U.S. illiberal leader in Honduras. Here are the facts:
- After packing judicial and electoral bodies with supporters, President Juan Orlando Hernández achieved, in 2015, the right to run for re-election. This is what President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009 for attempting. The Obama administration said little or nothing about this. Honduras is a major source of migration to the United States and transshipment point for cocaine—two phenomena that get worsened by political instability—and Hernández was going along with U.S. plans to address those issues.
- Initial results of the November 26 election confounded pollsters’ expectations. The election authority, dominated by President Hernández’s party, showed the President losing to center-left challenger Salvador Nasralla by a 5-point margin with 70 percent of the vote counted.
- Then, counting mysteriously stopped. In a move reminiscent of the PRI’s theft of Mexico’s 1988 presidential vote, electoral authorities blamed a computer glitch. When the count resumed, President Hernández had taken the lead. Credible media outlets reported evidence of vote-rigging.
- OAS and European Union observer missions would not go along with this. They issued strong statements cautioning the electoral tribunal against announcing a result prematurely, citing “irregularities, errors and systemic problems,” refusing to certify the result without a thorough count, and even holding up the possibility of organizing new elections that might be viewed as legitimate.
The U.S. government has lagged far behind this, taking pains to avoid questioning what has happened since the vote. From a decimated State Department (there is no Senate-approved ambassador or assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere) have come tepid, anodyne, and infrequent statements. Officials have urged calm and called for protesters to avoid violence. They’ve counseled patience with the electoral authorities’ count, and simply encouraged the electoral authority to “address concerns.”
On Wednesday, 17 days after the disputed election, the State Department’s spokeswoman had been given nothing at all to say about Honduras. Not even realizing that U.S. chargé d’affaires Heide Fulton wasn’t a “he,” she told reporters, “In terms of commenting on the elections and the results, we’re just going to hold off until we can get that better figured out. Okay?” Sources in both Honduras and Washington tell me that U.S. diplomats, noting that protests have not been widespread enough to shut down the country, are quietly pushing for a solution that guarantees stability: one that ends the current uncertainty as quickly as possible and cements Hernández’s lead.
It’s shameful to see the U.S. government lagging so far behind the OAS and the European Union in defense of democracy in Latin America. Honduras is a small, poor country of minor strategic importance. But the historical significance is huge. This is a big and sad shift in U.S. policy.
The Trump administration’s silence encourages autocrats and “illiberal democrats” everywhere. The recipe is simple: if you plan to erode democracy, just make some pro-U.S. noises first. The silence also undermines the credibility of any U.S. criticism of adversarial dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela. Charges of a double standard will stick. It’s easy to brush off criticism from a Washington that picks and chooses which authoritarian behavior to oppose and which to ignore.
When I was in college, this was the accepted reality of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Since then, that reality had crumbled, haltingly giving way to something far better, and contributing to 25 years of increased political freedom in the Americas. It’s really upsetting that the U.S. performance in Honduras this month is taking me all the way back to my college years.