01 July, 2009

Not all coups created equal

Having now achieved the dubious distinction of completing the academic coursework required to be considered a regional specialist, I thought I should have something to say about the recent coup in Honduras. In one sense, there isn't a lot to say. Latin America has long been marked by weak civilian institutions and militaries that are, to say the least, not very well walled off from domestic political disputes. A military stepping in to do away with a government that they feel threatens domestic stability is pretty run of the mill in historical terms.

In another sense, this is a development that is much more disturbing than it would have been in, say, the 1970s. Observers have long hailed a period of democratic retrenchment in Latin America correlating roughly with the end of the Cold War, and the hope has been that the region had truly turned a corner. This always seemed pretty naive to me. The structural problems facing Latin American societies remain largely the same as ever - growth has persisted, but remains mediocre; economic, financial, and currency crises have continued at regular intervals; poverty has only inched down and inequality has not budged and in some cases risen; opportunity is still sharply stratified by race, class, and gender; infrastructure is poor; provision of education, health care, sanitary services, police protection and other social compacts are extremely tenuous; corruption continues to be endemic and the rule of law is weak. All of these factors, in different measures in different circumstances, have contributed to political systems that are, in general, highly dysfunctional and highly unstable. While democratic rule has been, again in general, slowly improving over the past two decades, progress has been built on a very shaky foundation.

What has changed is the international context, and the regional dynamics of Latin America are one of the first things otherwise astute observers seem to miss. There is a growing chorus of folks decrying the supposed inconsistency of Obama's reaction between Iran and Honduras; take Daniel Larison (h/t the Dish), who calls Obama's immediate demand for Zelaya's return "incredible incompetence".

But why in the world should we react in the same manner to two cases that are as different as night and day? In Iran, an understated reaction is called for primarily because it would be counterproductive given our almost complete lack of leverage over the Iranian regime. Our reaction to Honduras, on the other hand, must be conditioned by several very different realities. First, Honduras was already a democracy, and a two-day-old military coup to unseat a president is very different in terms of its vulnerability to international pressure than is a full blown revolutionary regime that has succeeded in uniting its country's economic, political and military elite for 30 years. Second, the United States has a tremendous amount of leverage with which to influence Honduras, which is not the case with Iran. And, finally, unlike previous US adventures in Latin America, we are now acting multilaterally with the full blessing of all other members of the Organization of American States. Since the end of the Cold War, the OAS has developed a regional democracy-protection agreement, known as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which requires OAS members to collectively intervene to restore democratic order in the case of a "democratic interruption."

Obama's call for the restoration of Zelaya is not another agressive and ill-considered intervention that the US used to commonly perpetrate in Central America in order to defend extremely narrow domestic political interests. It is, instead, in alignment with - and required by - the most important and hard-won multilateral agreement in the Americas. And comparisons with Iran are unenlightening in the extreme.

No comments: