Electoral Hypocrisy in Latin America

Honduras has been violently crumbling into a state of political crisis since the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya on June 28. The disaster Honduras faces today stands in stark contrast with the political climate in Colombia, even though they have faced similar situations.

Zelaya’s decision to continue with a non-binding constitutional referendum was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He had no institutional support in this referendum; it had already been condemned by the Supreme Court and the Congress, and he had fired the chief commander of the military when as he decided not to support the referendum. Nevertheless, Zelaya seized the ballot boxes and moved ahead with the vote. According to the opposition, this referendum was intended to change the rules of the game and reform the constitution to include the possibility of indefinite reelection so he could run for another term in office, as others in the region had done (referring, of course, to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez). Whether or not Zelaya was seeking reelection is still unknown. However, it’s clear that the opposition didn’t want to take this risk and opted for a military coup.

Why isn’t Colombia experiencing discord of this sort? There, President Álvaro Uribe has already changed the constitution once to get reelected for a consecutive four-year term. Colombia’s congress approved that change in May 2005. Today he’s trying to change the constitution again so he can be elected for a third term. Without a doubt, these two cases are difficult to compare. Yet the hypocrisy that characterizes the reactions that have been expressed — both in Honduras and abroad — in the name of democracy is striking.

While working to get the rules changed so that he could run for a second term in office, Uribe formally adhered to all constitutional parameters, collecting signatures and meeting deadlines. Then Uribe comfortably won reelection in May 2006, with more than 60% of the vote. Today, even though things have become more difficult for the “Colombian messiah” (as some Colombians, both supporters and in the opposition, call him), he has so far adhered to constitutional procedures while seeking to change the rules yet again for a third term.

Uribe’s ambitions seem transparent, democratic, and constitutional. However, if Colombians were really committed to defending our constitution and democracy, we would have kicked Uribe out of the presidential palace a long time ago.

Consider the scandal involving a woman named Yidis Medina. Medina, the congresswoman who uncovered one of the many scandalous episodes of Uribe’s soap opera, was relatively unknown beyond congressional and political circles until 2004. But after assuring she was against allowing him to run for a second term, she cast the vote that enabled Uribe to change the constitution, making it possible for him to run in the 2006 elections, which he won. Four years later, in April 2008, she drew attention by confessing that she had taken bribes from government officials to change her vote. She admitted to accepting bribes and for some months made Uribe’s government uneasy. After various investigations and legal procedures, in June the supreme court confirmed her version of the facts. But Yidis went to jail, while Uribe began to angle for a third term.

Another bizarre twist: Colombians seemed to be more worried about “enjoying” Medina’s half-naked photos in Soho — one of the country’s most prestigious male magazines — than interested in questioning the way Uribe’s government is trying to realize its ambitions. The scandal makes her guilty, but also makes illegal the process by which reelection reform passed in Colombia and thus, Uribe’s reelection itself. Yes, Uribe democratically won the elections with more than 7 million votes, but it’s time to understand that substantial and sustainable democracy extends far beyond elections.

Stranger still, the Medina affair seems not to have attracted much attention from the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Union, the World Bank, or the United States. Yet all these governments and agencies have expressed grave concerns about Zelaya’s supposed ambitions to change the Honduran constitution.

Isn’t this hypocrisy? Sure, dismissing the military’s top commander without reason, proceeding with a referendum without approval of congress or the supreme court, and acting against the law is unconstitutional, and endangers the functioning of a democratic government and the legitimacy of national institutions. But buying votes in congress and mobilizing large amounts of money to make your second term constitutional is at least as unconstitutional and antidemocratic. Colombian democracy during the Uribe era has had more than its fair share of setbacks, involving drugs, guerrillas, paramilitaries and, of course, Yidis Medina. In this sense, we could say that both Zelaya and Uribe are failing to uphold democratic ideals.

If democracy is what’s truly at stake, along with the rule of law, the system of checks and balances, mechanisms for citizen participation, and respect for institutions, both cases are equally despicable. Zelaya’s government, which embraced an increasingly anti-poverty agenda, flirted with Chávez; Uribe’s government, which adhered to the Bush doctrine, supported “free trade” and “free markets,” and obtained a majority in Congress (through unconstitutional and undemocratic means).

But Zelaya was violently ousted, while Uribe is aiming for a third term in office.

Today, Honduras is sinking into a deep crisis. If the aim of the international community, and in particular of the United States, is to protect democracy, guarantee the rule of law, and achieve more solid institutions, it must act consistently and without hypocrisy. If the problem is that the nationalization of private businesses, defiance of free trade and free markets, and establishment of alternative schemes for international integration generate fears and doubt, then confront these fears. However, this must be done explicitly.

Perhaps the most sensible way ahead with Honduras would be letting Zelaya finish his term in office. But it make more sense to just hold the elections scheduled for November early and begin a new chapter with fresh faces and no blood in the streets. The international community’s support will be indispensable for that to happen. It will also be necessary to establish a transparent electoral system that will guarantee the free vote of each citizen and will assure the country that the military won’t use repression and barbarity to interrupt the advance of democracy.

If the White House wants to be consistent in its call for democracy today in Honduras, it must exert pressure on the Colombian government to respect democracy, the constitution, and the country’s other institutions. That would mean using its leverage over Colombia to convince Uribe that he shouldn’t change the constitution and then run for a third term.

Juan Masullo is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor. After studying political science and international relations, he is now a B.A. candidate in sociology at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá-Colombia.