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Originally published Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

U.S. must get tough to help restore democratic order in Honduras

The U.S. should impose targeted sanctions to help restore democratic order to Honduras, writes Elvia Valle, a member of the Honduran Congress. The coup that removed President Manual Zelaya was not legal under the Honduran Constitution.

Special to The Times

ROBERTO Micheletti, the man who, on June 28, supported a military coup against the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and then assumed control of the country, was until recently a close friend and political ally. For years, I had admired his strong commitment to democracy. But then when I first realized, in early June of this year, that Micheletti was prepared to betray his principles in his effort to force President Zelaya out of power, I felt a deep sense of disgust and fear.

Like many fellow Hondurans, I suffered the repression of the 1970s dictatorships firsthand. In 1975, I had to flee into exile for seven years with my husband after the regime targeted him for his involvement with labor and peasant movements. The coup d'etat and the repression that has followed have brought back terrible memories of a time that we hoped was buried in the past. The coup has also been the moral downfall of Micheletti, who through his actions destroyed the democratic credentials he had built over his career. Our Constitution does not allow Congress to remove a president from office, as it did under Micheletti's direction on June 28. The judicial actions invoked to justify the detention of the president also go against our Constitution. Micheletti's regime deported President Zelaya from the country without even trying him for an alleged crime, something to which even the worst criminal has a right.

Moreover, on top of being unconstitutional, the vote to approve the destitution of Zelaya was not transparent. I am a member of our Congress' Executive Committee, yet I was not summoned to participate in the vote to approve the president's removal, nor were another 20 fellow Liberal Party members of Congress. The regime then tried to fool the world by claiming there was a unanimous congressional decision supporting the coup, even though some 27 congress members publicly voiced their opposition.

The international community has rejected the de facto regime's belated legal, moral and political justifications for the coup. This was not only a coup d'etat against President Zelaya, but a coup against all the leaders and institutions of the Americas. It could have a destabilizing effect on the region, and act as a distraction from grave problems such as terrorism, poverty and climate change.

The question remains: How far is the Obama administration willing to go to pressure the de facto government? If it stands by and allows the consolidation of the coup, Latin American leaders will have serious doubts about the administration's intentions to rebuild diplomatic and political relations with other countries, and to its commitment to democracy.

Clearly, what is needed from the United States are targeted sanctions, designed in a way that will avoid hurting the poor, but will pressure the coup plotters to accept the proposal of Costa Rican president and mediator Oscar Arias, which President Zelaya has already endorsed. The U.S. should freeze the de facto regime leaders' U.S.-based assets, and revoke their visas, as the U.S. State Department has already started to do.

The U.S. should also join the Union of South American Nations and Mexico in refusing to recognize the outcome of November's elections. Since the electoral process would be held under a de facto regime that has suppressed all constitutional liberties, civil guarantees and the freedom of expression, conditions for free and fair elections will be impossible, and some politicians who have publicly denounced the coup now face reprisals and retaliation for their ties to President Zelaya.

These sanctions would help return democratic order to my country. If the coup is allowed to stand, extremists on both the left and right wing across the hemisphere will benefit, further hampering efforts to strengthen sustainable democracy throughout Latin America.

Elvia Valle has served as a Liberal Party member of the Honduran Congress since the late 1990s.

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