By taking on Honduras as a foreign policy priority, Brazil is expressing a powerful Latin American consensus. The notion that this could somehow damage Brazil and its global objectives is profoundly mistaken.
Things in Honduras were going from bad to worse. Finally, Brazil decided to take the bull by the horns and exercise the sort of leadership needed to find a solution to the crisis. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has indicated that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who recently returned incognito to his country and made it into the Brazilian Embassy, can stay there “as long as it is necessary.” He also responded to the ‘ultimatum’ delivered to him by the Honduran government (giving him ten days to either surrender Mr. Zelaya to the police or provide him with political asylum) by saying that he does not negotiate with coup mongers.
Brazil has received some flak for this. Jorge Castañeda, in a long interview in the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo, has stated that, in so doing, Brazil is acting more like a “dwarf” than a “diplomatic giant”, taking on minor battles for “a country that is not decisive.” In his view, this would hardly correspond to Brazil’s aspirations to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member. The former Mexican Foreign Minister is wrong. Indications are that Mr. Zelaya’s return and Brazil’s stance have led to a turnaround in the stalemate that existed until now. Talks between the de facto regime and Mr. Zelaya seem to be in the offing.
Why is Honduras so critical? Why is it that the fourth poorest country in Latin America, with a per capita income of a mere $ 1900, about half the regional average, the one that gave rise to the term ‘banana republic,’ has turned into the most urgent matter on the inter-American agenda? Why is it that, in the past half century, no other single event in the Americas has been rejected as emphatically as the one that took place in Honduras on June 28, 2009?
What does the suspension of this country from the Organisation of American States (OAS) by a unanimous vote tell us?
The instant and unanimous reaction to the Honduras coup must be set against the background of what has been a long and protracted struggle to construct and consolidate democracy in Latin America over the past 20 years, something on which enormous progress has been made. However, given the shallowness of these democratic roots and the enormous inequalities that mark these societies, this tender plant called democracy needs special caring and nurturing.
In the age of globalisation, respect for democracy has ceased to be merely an internal matter. In an interdependent world, in which countries can obtain significant benefits from international trade, FDI and tourism, to mention only a few items, the international community also demands that, to continue to be part of this ‘club’, certain requirements are fulfilled. A large number of democratic monitoring mechanisms have thus emerged.
In no part of the world have these mechanisms been as institutionalised as in Latin America. The Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved in Lima, Peru, on September 11, 2001, was, from a legal point of view, the culmination of this process. To that we should add the many regional and sub-regional agreements that include a democratic clause, according to which the moment the democratic continuity of any given member state is interrupted, the latter’s membership is suspended.
Since then, there have been cases in which elected heads of state have ended their terms prematurely and abruptly. But in none of them did we see anything similar to what happened in Honduras: a President taken at gunpoint out of his home in the early hours of the morning, put on a plane, and flown abroad. If that is not a military coup, what is?
If the inter-American system is unable to restore democracy in Honduras, one of the weakest countries in the region, it will not be able to do so anywhere. Honduras puts into question 20 years of democratisation in Latin America. What would the European Union do if tomorrow there was to be a coup in, say, Greece? To ask the question is to answer it. To allow the precedent of the Honduras coup to stand would have serious consequences. That is why over the last three months different entities, groupings, and governments have attempted to undo the effects of the coup. These go from the members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), led by Venezuela, to the OAS, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, the United States, and now Brazil. The EU, and Spain in particular, have taken very clear stands on the issue.
Given the realities of power in the hemisphere, many expected that the leadership to solve the crisis would come from Washington. However, despite its ostensible commitment to multilateralism and the cause of democracy in Latin America, the administration of President Barack Obama has indicated that, even though it condemns the coup and has instituted sanctions, it is not prepared to take a leadership role in overcoming the current stalemate. In fact, on the occasion of the NAFTA Summit in Guadalajara on 9 August, Mr. Obama, with some irony, stated that it seemed odd to him that the very same people who in the past denounced Yankee interventionism, were now clamouring for Washington to do precisely that. The Republican opposition to Mr. Obama in Congress has also managed to paralyse U.S. policy towards Latin America at this critical point by holding up key diplomatic nominations.
Admittedly, the United States has several carrots and sticks to make Honduras return to the straight and narrow. Some of them have already been used. Coup regime head Roberto Micheletti, his Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez, and the 14 judges of the Supreme Court who have backed the ‘de facto’ government have had their U.S. visas revoked. Mr. Micheletti’s daughter, posted to the Honduran Embassy in Washington, has been deported. Partly as a result of U.S. pressure, both the World Bank and the IMF have suspended their loan programmes to Honduras, including the $ 150 million allocated as part of the $ 250 billion global stimulus package managed by the Fund.
But this may be the chance for Latin America to learn to use its own carrots and sticks. In the course of the past decade, Latin America has started to play a more significant role in international affairs, diversifying its markets and its diplomatic links. This has gone hand in hand with a noticeable drop in U.S. influence in the region. At the same time, intraregional political cooperation has increased exponentially, with the growth and development of many new collective entities and their summits. This significant asset is now being put to the test. If Latin American presidents cannot resolve this crisis, which ones can they solve? If not now, when?
A recurrent criticism of Brazilian foreign policy during the Lula presidency has been that it has paid too much attention to global issues (the Doha Round, IBSA and BRICS, and UN Security Council reform) and not enough to regional affairs. Now that Brazil has taken seriously the task of resolving the impasse in Honduras, the argument is reversed: it is that by getting involved in such a regional issue, Brazil would be harming its broader aspirations. This is nonsense. Brazil is the great Latin American regional power and it projects its influence around the world from the region. A regional power with global aspirations that is unable to resolve crises in its own surroundings will not be taken seriously elsewhere.
By taking on Honduras as a foreign policy priority, Brazil is expressing a Latin American consensus. The notion that this could somehow damage Brazil and its global objectives is mistaken. If Brasilia makes a contribution towards resolving the issue, and thus take that particular monkey off Washington’s back, it would have started to exercise the sort of leadership the region has long been waiting for.
(Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. His latest book (with Andrew F. Cooper), Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization , is published by the United Nations University Press.)