Senator Martinez on the Honduran Crisis

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
U.S. Senator Mel Martinez of Florida on the floor of the U.S. Senate today:

Mr. President, I rise to speak about the events in Honduras. The events that are taking place in Honduras right now are the unfortunate result of a silence from both the United States and the Inter-America community to the assault on Honduras' democratic institutions. It is difficult for Hondurans and other democrats within the region to understand the full significance of President Zelaya's expulsion from Honduras. Up until this point, there has not been any significant voice or action in opposition to the dismantling of free societies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and as Honduras was going down the same path, you might also add Nicaragua to that, to name only a few of the most visible cases.

It is also hard to explain why there was silence in the face of President Zelaya's earlier unconstitutional actions, especially the events that have appeared to precipitate his ousting: the storming of a military base to seize and distribute ballots for a referendum that previously had been declared unconstitutional by the Honduran Supreme Court. A fundamental tenet of democracy is the separation of powers. You've got a president in the executive branch and then you have a judicial branch of government as a coequal branch. And that branch of government told the president that the referendum he was seeking to have to extend his rule beyond the constitutional term was illegal, should not be done. He was undeterred and he was completely unrepentant as he sought to continue with his plan to have a referendum, even though the Congress, even though the judiciary, had already told him that that was in contravention of the Constitution of their country.

Where was the region's outrage of Hugo Chavez's support for Mr. Zelaya's unconstitutional actions in Honduras? Mr. Chavez supported Mr. Zelaya because they are kindred spirits. Because Mr. Chavez already had been able to usurp every institution of democracy within Venezuela and now rules as an autocrat, he wanted to have that same playbook applied to Honduras, as he has coached and shepherded the doings of the same thing in Bolivia and to some degree in Ecuador as well. And with Nicaragua now coming along. So the Honduran people decided this was not going to happen in their country and the people in the Honduran Congress and the Honduran Supreme Court decided that it was not going to happen on their watch.

The region's silence toward the assault on democracy in Honduras followed a pattern of acquiescence to Chavez's dismantling of democratic institutions and civil liberties in Venezuela. For instance, the O.A.S. has said absolutely nothing about Chavez's closing of independent media, his manipulation of elections, his erosion of independent branches of government, and his usurping of the authority of local elected officials. Leaders like Chavez, Ortega, and Zelaya have cloaked themselves in the language of democracy when it's convenient for them. Yet, their actions ignore it when it doesn't further their personal ambitions. This situation was compounded by the United States' actions, including work behind the scenes to keep the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court from using the clearly legal means of presidential impeachment. Some of us have wondered why wasn't he impeached? Why didn't the Congress go ahead and impeach President Zelaya? The fact of the matter is that our embassy in Tegucigalpa counseled that they should not do that – that they should not do that, that the Hondurans should not use the tools of impeachment.

Having stood on the sidelines while Mr. Zelaya overstepped the nation's Constitution, the United States and the international community only speak now. Protecting a sitting president regardless of their illegal act sets a dangerous precedent. Instead, U.S. policy should be focused on supporting efforts that uphold the integrity of constitutional order and democratic institutions.

In fairness to the Obama Administration, this distorted policy is not new. Through advice from the State Department, former President George W. Bush was talked out of having the United States stand visibly with democratic advocates in Latin America. The advice was based on the belief by not making the United States an issue, this would allow the region to stand up for democratic activists. Unfortunately, no country or leader did so. And most significant of all, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States has sat idly by year after year, as democracy after democracy is being dismantled one piece at a time, one election at a time, one institution at a time, saying absolutely nothing.

The O.A.S. has a responsibility to condemn and sanction presidential abuses, not just abuses against presidents. Because of the O.A.S.'s failure to uphold the checks and balances within democracies, it has become an enabler of authoritarian leaders throughout the region. The result of this has been a signal of acceptance to anti-democratic actions and abandonment of those fighting for democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and elsewhere.

This silence was compounded by recent repudiation of the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to the Cuban dictatorship. Ironically, it was in Honduras with Mr. Zelaya taking the leading role where the O.A.S. General Assembly decided against any clear democratic standards for Cuba retaking its seat in that organization. So here's what occurred: The Organization of American States - filled with the desire to reincorporate Cuba into the family of nations - completely ignoring that for 50 years Cuba has been a military dictatorship without even the vestiges of a free and fair election, and they invited Cuba to be readmitted without setting up a standard by which they would have to live. President Zelaya, with his partner Hugo Chavez, was leading the charge in saying, "Cuba should be welcome back and there should be no conditions." Those conditions of democratic rule are the very ones that he is now relying upon to try to get his presidency back. It is Mr. Zelaya now seeking the very protection of the democratic charter of the O.A.S. which he thinks is important to apply to him, but which he felt was unimportant to apply to the rights and opportunities of the Cuban people to try to claim a democratic future for themselves.

The crisis in Honduras stems from the failure of its leaders to live within constitutional boundaries and the earlier silence of the United States and the international community regarding the abuse of power by the Honduran executive. Tragically, the United States and the O.A.S. have put Honduras and the region in a position where democracy is the loser once again. The return of Mr. Zelaya will signal the approval of his unconstitutional act. If he is not allowed to return, then the unacceptable behavior of forcibly exiling a leader would be given tacit approval. This is what happens when principles are sacrificed for a policy only described as appeasement of authoritarians.

In the current crisis neither the United States nor other countries in the region or the international community should be taking sides in a constitutional dispute, but rather encouraging a resolution through dialogue among Hondurans. To this end, efforts should be focused on helping Hondurans form a reconciliation government that would include representatives not associated with either Zelaya's administration or the current interim government. The objective would be to keep Honduras on track to hold currently scheduled Presidential elections in November with the inauguration of a new president in January as mandated by the Honduran Constitution. The newly elected president with an electoral mandate then can decide how to deal with Mr. Zelaya and those involved in his ouster.

As the U.S. Senate takes up President Obama's nominees to key State Department positions in Latin America, it is time to question the acceptance by the United States and the Inter-American community of the sustained dismantling of democratic institutions and free societies by presidents seeking to consolidate personal power at any cost. This is the larger challenge in Latin America and Honduras is the latest symptom. The United States must no longer remain silent when democratic institutions are undermined. Any disruption of the constitutional order is unacceptable regardless of who commits it.

It would be well for us to remember that as we look forward to what may come next, the Presidential succession ought to be honored, however institutions of democracy also ought to be equally honored. Secretary of State Clinton met today at 1:00 with deposed President Zelaya and it appears that she is seeking to align the United States with the mediation that is about to be undertaken by President ├ôscar Arias – a Nobel Prize winning, well regarded man from Costa Rica. And that President Arias might take the opportunity to see how we can bring this process back together again. It seems to me the elections in Honduras ought to take place as scheduled and a new, democratically elected government ought to go forward. The real question is, will Mr. Zelaya be allowed to return to the Office of President? It seems to be fairly unanimous that all Honduran institutions oppose such an outcome. They do not want Mr. Zelaya back. They have seen the dark movie of what life can be like in a Cuba-type situation. They have seen the erosion of democracy with the complete erosion of freedoms so much made a dear part of what we in this country believe in that has taken place in Venezuela. They have seen the continued erosion of democratic values in Nicaragua and they don't want to see it happen in their country. And one can't blame them. It would only be fitting that they should find comfort by those of us in this country who not only value democracy for us but believe it should be shared by others around the world no matter their circumstances.

It isn't good enough to be elected democratically but then rule as a dictator and in the process of being an elected president, then move to erode all the institutions of democracy – the courts, the congresses, even the military as an institution; they ought to be respected. Their Independence ought to be valued. The playbook of Mr. Chavez, which is to dismantle the military leadership and bring in cronies of his, the efforts to then discredit the courts and bring in judges that he would also approve of – this has been the playbook by which Chavez has operated and the one that Mr. Zelaya was attempting to put into play.

So let's hope that President Arias from Costa Rica will be able to lead a mediation effort, that will bring together all the disparate groups. That there can be a free and fair election. And that there can be a resolution to this crisis of democracy. But let it also be a wake-up call to the rest of us who have sat silently by as this erosion of democracy takes place one country at a time in Latin America. We ought to say, "enough is enough." Let's stand for the rule of law. Let's stand for democracy not only on Election Day, but each and every day thereafter as we seek leaders that are elected democratically but govern democratically.