Once again an outside power is meddling in the internal affairs of a small, poor Central American country and threatening military action if its preferred candidate is not restored to office. The irony is that it is not Uncle Sam interfering in Honduras-which has happened often enough-but Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has made a career of railing against foreign intervention. Chávez's belligerent threats of military action to restore his ally, ousted president Manuel Zelaya, to power are supported by Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Bolivia's Evo Morales and the Castro brothers in Cuba.
The leaders, as part of Chávez's oil-fueled regional "Bolivarian revolution," have twisted their constitutions like pretzels, run roughshod over due process, worked to silence the press, concentrated power in their own hands, and fomented violence against the legal political opposition. In addition to their current autocratic and anti-democratic governing styles, Ortega led a violent, successful revolution and Chávez led an unsuccessful military coup attempt, making their outrage over a constitutional maneuver, no matter how questionable, ring hollow.
What is more disturbing is the growing ties between the Bolivarian revolutionary states and armed groups in Latin America and across the world, their open embrace of Iran, and the teaching of terrorist methodologies pioneered by radical Islamists as official military doctrine. The sole point of convergence between the Iranian theocracy and the secular Bolivarian populists is a deep hatred for the United States and liberal democracy. Zelaya, hooked on subsidized Venezuelan oil, was following the same autocratic and anti-democratic path pioneered by Chávez and joining an alliance that has strangled democratic development wherever the Bolivarian revolution has taken root.
Zelaya's ouster is the first clear sign that there will be a reaction against the abuses and excesses of the Bolivarian model of radical populism, megalomania and violence, often called "popular democracy" and described as 21st Century socialism. The concern of Chávez and his allies have for Zelaya has much more to do with a fear that the reaction against them will grow than it does with any commitment to democracy. A successful removal of Zelaya could be a model for their own demise.
Make no mistake. Giving the military a leading role in a political drama in Honduras may be akin to giving a pyromaniac matches and can of kerosene. It can end badly. I covered Honduras for 20 years and reported extensively both on the military's egregious human rights abuses and voracious economic appetite that sucked the national coffers dry, although the troops have stayed in the barracks for more than two decades.
But look at the alternatives. Zelaya was illegally attempting the same political move successfully executed by Chávez and Morales-a constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power indefinitely-always among the first actions of the Bolivarian leaders. The nation's supreme court ruled that his attempted referendum was unconstitutional. His party broke with him, his attorney general said it was illegal and the army refused to cooperate in light of the court ruling. Yet Zelaya proceeded, after leading a crowd to burn an army installation in protest of the institution's failure to defy the supreme court decision. He was flown into exile at gunpoint and replaced by Roberto Micheletti, of his own party and head of the National Assembly. Micheletti promises to hold scheduled presidential elections this year and not be a candidate. Time will tell.
The Honduras situation leaves the United States with difficult options. How the Obama administration handles this challenge against a government that was in the process of breaching the constitutional order will have powerful repercussions across Latin America. Similar challenges could appear in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador as the Bolivarian governments move to consolidate their hold on power and meet resistance.
It is tempting to see the restoration of Zelaya as the democratic imperative, and most of the international community is pressing for this outcome, while not endorsing Chávez's threats of violence. The Organization of American States is set to impose a series of crippling economic sanctions if Zelaya is not allowed to return in some form. But it is worth looking further at the implications of the Boliviarian revolution writ large.
It has been almost two decades since the democratic processes began in Central America, and a few years more since South America moved from military dictatorships and coups to liberal democracies with imperfect but improving institutional processes, transparency and freedoms. I lived in Latin America during civil wars and the difficult transition from decades of brutal authoritarian regimes to the fragile democratic structures, built through sweat and blood.
These still-fragile democracies are now in danger of being choked by the new radical populism, fueled by oil money, deep disillusionment with the corruption and mismanagement of the traditional political classes and exclusion based on race and class. The need for deep reform certainly exists. But Chávez's model is not the solution.
Reasons for deep concern about the spread of the Bolivarian revolution are far deeper than simple ideological disputes, and Zelaya's actions are only one piece of a wider pattern. The threat of Chávez and his allies goes to the heart of the region's democratic processes and institutionality. While the moves against civil society and institutions have been amply documented, the contours of the broader threat of the Bolivarian alliance and its ties to radical Islamist regimes, particularly Iran, are now clearer.
Venezuela has adopted an official military doctrine that is based on strategies Hezbollah and other radical Islamist groups are already practicing, and one embraced to a significant degree by Iran, the primary state sponsor of those groups. The embrace of this doctrine provides an important link in understanding the ties of Venezuela and its allies to Iran.
Since 2005 Chávez has rewritten Venezuela's security doctrine, replacing "imperialist" influences with a doctrine centered on asymmetrical warfare, in the belief that the primary threat to Venezuelan and Latin American security is a U.S. invasion. This doctrine is being taught by Venezuelan instructors to the militaries of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
One of the main books Chávez has adopted is Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare by the Spanish politician Jorge Verstrynge. Although he is not a Muslim Verstrynge's book lauds radical Islam (as well as past terrorists like Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal) for expanding the parameters of what irregular warfare can encompass, including the use of biological and nuclear weapons. He is particularly taken with suicide bombers, whom he praises for their willingness to die for the cause. Verstrynge has lauded Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for creating a new type of warfare that is "de-territorialized, de-stateized and de-nationalized," a war where suicide bombers act as "atomic bombs for the poor."
Chávez invited Verstrynge to give keynote address to military leaders in a 2005 conference and ordered a special pocket size edition of the book to be printed up and distributed throughout the officer corps, to be studied cover to cover.
The fascination with asymmetrical warfare may explain why Chávez and other members of the Bolivarian axis maintain close ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a designated terrorist and drug trafficking organization by both the United States and the European Union. Chávez personally requested that the FARC train Venezuelan military and militias in guerrilla warfare in case of a U.S. invasion.
These actions are part of why many who viewed the Bolivarian revolutions in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras with hope are now turning away in disillusionment. With more and more avenues of legitimate protest, dissent and political change cut off, there few options to return to the values so many fought for in decades past-freedom of speech, the rule of law, unfettered media, a separation of powers and chance to replace poor governments with better ones in regularly scheduled elections. Zelaya's removal was evokes old school methods and appears to be ill-considered. But the Obama administration needs to weigh the bigger picture before handing Chávez and his allies an easy victory by backing Zelaya under the illusion that such a move will bring advance democracy in Honduras or Latin America.