A military coup d'etat in Honduras Sunday echoed the bad old days of Latin America when such changes of government were common.
President Manuel Zelaya was grabbed by soldiers in the presidential palace and carted off to neighboring Costa Rica. He was quickly replaced by the chairman of the Honduran parliament, Roberto Micheletti, but the nature of the departure and the reasons for Mr. Zelaya's overthrow made it clear that this was, in fact, an old-fashioned military coup d'etat by the Honduran armed forces.
Mr. Zelaya had been quarreling with the country's military in recent days over his attempts to reassert civilian authority over them by replacing the armed forces commander, Gen. Romeo Vasquez. He had also riled a number of Honduras's civilian political figures through his attempts to seek another term as president, in defiance of the country's constitution which limits a president to one term. The most recent route to holding onto power that he was exploring was to try to set up a referendum on the question.
America's attitude toward Sunday's coup is complicated to some degree by the fact that Mr. Zelaya is considered to be a Latin American president allied with Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez. Mr. Chavez has been busily seeking to put together a coalition of like-minded, anti-American Latin America presidents, using his country's oil wealth as a blandishment. It is, however, now generally gauged that Mr. Chavez's attitude toward the United States is being softened by the approach to him taken by President Barack Obama since he took office in January.
The other complicating factor for the United States is that there has been a close relationship between the Honduran military and U.S. forces, maintained in the name of counterterrorism and narcotics traffic interdiction. It is a little difficult to believe that U.S. forces in Honduras were not aware of what their counterparts were up to, or that, if they had wished to they could not have headed off Sunday's coup by pointing out the likely negative reaction in Washington.
The Organization of American States and the United States have heartily condemned the coup and called for a quick return to democratic rule in Honduras. The best first choice would be for Mr. Zelaya to be returned to power from Costa Rica to serve out his term, which ends in January, and then be succeeded in honest elections. A second choice would be for fresh presidential elections to be held as soon as possible.
In the meantime, it is absolutely necessary that U.S. military cooperation with the Honduran armed forces who overthrew the president be cut off promptly and entirely until democratic governance has been restored in the country. Hondurans and the rest of Latin America need to see that even if the United States is not enchanted by a particular elected president, he is nonetheless an elected president and the military needs to be kept strictly out of politics. The precedent of a successful military coup is unacceptable, in Latin America or anywhere else.