Honduras presents the Obama administration with its first real Latin American crisis.
Since the 1981 return of civilian rule, Honduras has regarded itself as a friend of the U.S. In the '80s, it allowed the Nicaraguan Resistance or "Contras" to operate from base camps there. It lent troops for Operation Iraqi Freedom and continues to support a small U.S. military presence on Honduran soil. Economic ties are strong.
Now those cordial relations are in jeopardy.
On June 28, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was expelled from the country for multiple constitutional violations. The U.S. quickly joined an international chorus deploring the expulsion, denouncing as a military coup what the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress called for a defense of their constitution and rule of law.
The new Honduran government says it wants to end polarization, restore order, and move to elections in November, but the international community demands Zelaya's restoration to power.
The U.S., anxious to send a pro-democracy message, finds itself running with a dangerous crowd -- one whose agenda is not necessarily dedicated to defending democracy.
Begin with ex-President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya -- a marginal victor in 2005. Formerly a centrist, this erratic politico morphed into a disciple of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His popularity plunged over the next three years, as the nation was battered by rising crime, poverty and economic recession. All the while, Zelaya's presidential clock was ticking. Honduran presidents are limited to one four-year term. Nonetheless, Zelaya launched an unconstitutional re-election bid that provoked his ouster.
In backing Zelaya to the hilt, Venezuela's elective-dictator Hugo Chavez has pitched the crisis to its current level. He did much the same back in March 2007 when he threatened war against Colombia. Yet, Chavez is no champion of democracy -- at home or abroad.
Since pushing through a referendum that removed Venezuela's presidential term limits, Chavez has unleashed a ferocious campaign against the domestic opposition, elected officials, and political and economic liberty.
Two weeks ago when the Iranian people rose in protest against electoral fraud, Chavez unswervingly aligned with the repressive Ayatollahs, dismissing the massive outpouring of protest as a CIA plot.
Then there's Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, arguably the least democratic president in Latin America. Thanks to a pact with another corrupt Nicaraguan president, a constitutional change that allowed him to win office with 37% of the vote, and stolen municipal elections in November 2008, Ortega still claims a seat at the democracy table.
Ortega undoubtedly harbors a festering vendetta against pro-American Honduras. A relic of the '80s Sandinista regime, Ortega sees this crisis as pay-back time for Honduras' sins of supporting the Contras.
Another dutiful friend of Zelaya is United Nations General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockman. Formerly Ortega's foreign minister during the Sandinista era, he was recently rescued from oblivion by his master in Managua and put up for his U.N. post.
His Excellency Mr. D'Escoto has duly denounced the coup and volunteered to accompany Zelaya when he returns to Honduras. Perhaps these actions will encourage critics to overlook His Excellency's spendthrift habits and indulgence in nepotism.
Also flying democratic colors is Cuban dictator Raul Castro, leader of a country without a free election since 1949. On June 29, in a moment worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism, Fidel's younger brother lashed out at the "the fascists" in Honduras who had the audacity to "trample on the political rights of Hondurans." Rated "unfree" by Freedom House, Castro's Cuba holds over 200 political prisoners, denies freedom of speech, and preserves a state security system to defend its totalitarian regime.
Finally, another senior hemispheric leader dead set against the "illegal" Honduran regime is Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Miguel Insulza. Propping up Zelaya in Honduras can only advance El Panzer's concerted effort to bring communist Cuba back into the fold of the democratic OAS.
Insulza may also calculate that embracing "democracy," in the person of Zelaya, can mute criticism of his silence while the strongmen of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua quietly dismantled political opposition, free media, and civil society.
These considerable external forces are demanding that Zelaya be repatriated, perhaps as early as July 3. At that point, he could wind up in either the presidential palace or prison.
The scenarios are far from certain. No accords are in place. Poor as they may be, Hondurans have pride and toughness. Like all nations they don't like being told by outsiders what to do or think. Violence, encouraged by outsiders, could erupt.
Whatever course events take, let's hope, the Obama team is mindful of the not-so hidden agendas of democracy's new-found but fickle friends.
Ray Walser, Ph.D. is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation.