More than a month has passed since the coup that removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from office, and still today no one can predict how and when, let alone if, the crisis will be resolved. While there are some promising developments underway—the Honduran armed forces have backed Costa Rican President Oscar Arias's mediation effort, and the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, has suggested he might agree to Zelaya's return—there are still many imponderables. How far are Zelaya and his Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, and Cuban sponsors willing to go to restore him to power? How long can Micheletti resist tacit international sanctions?
An opportunity to break new ground in Honduras and Latin America comes on Aug. 9 when Mexican President Felipe Calderón, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gather at the annual trilateral North American summit. They can begin to address the Honduran coup by correcting a misstep committed more than a month ago at the meetings of the Organization of American States and the Rio Group. At those meetings, the leaders essentially aligned themselves with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his left-wing allies—Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa from Ecuador, and Evo Morales from Bolivia—in their condemnation of the coup. Now they ought to rectify that error by reaffirming their condemnation of the events but go on to point out that the coup did not take place in a vacuum. It occurred because of the polarization of Honduran society wrought by Zelaya's alignment with Chávez, the Nicaraguans, and the Cubans, and by his obvious attempt to keep himself in office with the same kinds of undemocratic strategies that have already been used by Chávez, Correa, and Morales, and that are now being planned by Ortega. The causes and consequences of the coup matter.
In trying to mediate, the leaders of the Americas have effectively taken sides in an ideological battle, but there is a way to right the balance. At their meeting, Obama, Harper, and Calderón should reaffirm and expand on their commitment to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which calls on all members to defend democracy and was signed in 2001 by every government in the hemisphere, except for Cuba. (This writer signed on Mexico's behalf.) Article 19 calls for the suspension of any member state during serious interruptions of the democratic order, including "an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime." It has been invoked only twice—against the 2001 coup against Chávez and against the Honduran coup—but it should be applied everywhere in Latin America, all the time, not selectively when one group of countries is unhappy. It should have applied to the electoral fraud in Nicaragua last year, the eviction of the elected mayor of Caracas this year, and the repression in Bolivia. It should apply to all presidents defenestrated by the military, like Zelaya, but also to those overthrown by the "street," like Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina in 2001, Bolivia's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Meza in 2003 and 2005, respectively, and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador in 2005.
The charter is ambiguous in places, because in 2001 the only way to achieve a consensus was by resorting to generalities. If that is a problem in applying the charter more evenhandedly, then the leaders should call for the creation of a working group to revisit the charter and attempt to dot the i's and cross the t's.
Finally, the three leaders should take on the difficult matter of economic sanctions against Honduras. The OAS and the Venezuelans, and ironically even the Cubans, have called for trade sanctions against the Micheletti government, and the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank have all temporarily suspended aid to the region's third-poorest country. While there are good reasons for applying sanctions to Honduras, and they may even work, the three North American leaders should make it clear that they can be permissible only if very clear guidelines are laid down regarding their duration, their applicability to other conceivable cases, and the firm commitment by parties who can make them effective, like the United States, to resort to similar measures in similar situations in the future. If not, the sanctions will be seen as a form of placating Chávez—with Obama, Calderón, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, and other democratic leaders of the hemisphere simply bending over backward to appear opposed to the coup, regardless of its causes, its consequences, and the precedents that sanctions may create.