Honduras coup spotlights Latin America's growing instability

Unrest has also erupted in Guatemala and Nicaragua in the past year, and the region is dealing with powerful organized crime and drug traffickers.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya protest in front of the National Congress in Tegucigalpa Thursday. The EU pulled its ambassadors from Honduras in protest of the coup Thursday and the Organization of American States has threatened to expel the country.

The military ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday, for many, harks back to dark days of military coups in Latin America.

Yet even as it stands as the region's most tense crisis at the moment, it does not stand alone. Protests have erupted across the region in the past year.

Citizens took to streets in Nicaragua demanding a recount after municipal elections they say were rigged.

In Guatemala, protesters called for their president to step down after he was accused of orchestrating a murder. There, as in other countries in the region, organized crime is taking over wide swaths of territory and corrupting institutions.

"Somewhat to my surprise, Central America seems to be unraveling politically," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution's Latin America Initiative. "In different ways, it is showing the vulnerabilities of democracy in the region."

Latin American countries have come a long way from the military dictatorships of past decades. Fair elections are the norm, and while institutions are weak, some have become global models. But recent events have proven a disturbing reminder of the fragility of institution-building.

The global community has unanimously condemned the situation in Honduras, calling it a coup, and has urged the nation to reinstate constitutional order.

The head of the Organization of American States said Thursday he would travel to Honduras Friday to demand the return of the ousted president.

The OAS also said it would suspend Honduras if the president is not reinstated by Saturday.

The 27-nation European Union, meanwhile, recalled all its ambassadors to Honduras in protest of the coup.

Still, says Mr. Casas-Zamora, Mr. Zelaya had also broken the law by defying a Supreme Court notice and a nation widely opposed to his plans to move forward with a nonbinding referendum ultimately aimed at scrapping presidential term limits. "The situation in Honduras is bad all around," he says. "No one seems to [care] about the law."

Unrest in Guatemala, Nicaragua

The ouster of Zelaya follows mass protests in Guatemala, after a murdered lawyer, in a video circulated after his death, denounced Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom as an orchestrator of his killing, possibly in an attempt to stymie a corruption scandal. Guatemala has been overrun by organized crime, and drug traffickers threaten to overwhelm the state.

And in Nicaragua, protests erupted in November when President Daniel Ortega was widely condemned for fixing municipal elections in favor of his Sandinista party. His detractors say he is installing an authoritarian regime.

Beyond Central America, trouble is brewing. In Mexico, drug traffickers are so brazen that they have threatened school teachers, telling them to hand over Christmas bonuses, and openly recruit new members in banners hung up in cities. More than 6,200 were killed in Mexico last year, double the number of the year before, and the threat shows no sign of abating. Somewhat perversely, if it does decline, many analysts expect the problem to spill even further into Central America.

"There is a cumulative impact and the perception that Latin America is out of control," says Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

World's reaction shaped by region's volatility

In Honduras, Mr. Shifter says that few can defend the ouster of Zelaya as within the bounds of constitutionality, but that the world's strong reaction must also be understood in context.

"If everything were well, calm, and settled in the region, it may not have generated the same kind of reaction," he says. "But we run the risk of not taking Latin America seriously anymore. And whatever one might think about Zelaya, there is a sense that things have gone far enough."

Roberto Micheletti, who was sworn in as interim president of Honduras Sunday, refuses to call what happened here a coup, and says that, despite a curfew, the situation in the country is stable, with citizens going about their daily lives. Indeed, despite protests and the presence of soldiers roaming the streets and guarding a half-empty presidential palace, the rhythms of city life in Tegucigalpa seem normal.

But some citizens look with sadness, and a degree of fear, on what is happening in their country. "This is a tragedy," says Jorge Coca, a security guard at a hotel, as he watches protesters set up a road barricade. "Both sides are acting illegally. This has never happened before in this country."

Casas-Zamora says that weak institutions are behind several conflicts in the region, but that for now they are specific to the domestic issues of each country. Still, it could have a wider impact, especially on investment, as many outside do not distinguish the countries of Central America.

"The crises are localized," he says, "but at some point, the effects begin to spillover, and could end up hurting countries that are not unstable."

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