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Jonathan Power: Democracy Gone to Seed?

The confused situation in Honduras, where elected president Manuel Zelaya has been shown the door by the army and the supreme court, and in Iran, where thousands in the street protest an election they view as bogus, are not especially easy to solve with the simple shout: "Obey the rules of democracy." To many across the developing world, it seems that the West once again is being holier than thou. But is democracy such an intrinsic wonder? “Democracy,” wrote historian Norman Davies, in his monumental study Europe, “has few values of its own: it is as good or bad as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.” The Nazis, in three out of the five elections they contested, increased both their popular vote and their election of deputies. In time, they became the largest party in the Reichstag. Despite the party’s street violence and the murders of its opponents, the then-chancellor, Franz von Papen, decided to make Hitler chancellor and himself his deputy. Two years later, Hitler called a plebiscite to approve his elevation to the new position of Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. He gained 90 percent of the vote—a democratic means to facist ends. Maybe Berthold Brecht was right. We have to change the people. Democracy was a Greek idea. But it did not last and was forgotten for some 2,000 years, until Enlightenment thinkers resurrected the idea, blending their classical knowledge with a romanticized image of ancient Athens. But not all were so taken by these new thoughts. De Tocqueville wrote about “the tyranny of the majority.” Edmund Burke called the democracy of the French Revolution “the most shameless thing in the world.”

Jodi Liss: Peruvian People Power

This past month, two resource-rich countries saw political protests turn deadly as the people tried to reign in the autocratic dictates of an incumbent government. One country was, of course, Iran—where every day it seems the government strangles a little more life out of the people’s protests. With 24/7 news coverage of that disastrous election, you might be forgiven for not having heard about what happened in Peru, where for a change, the people won. Beginning in 2008, Peru’s president, Alan Garcia, issued a series of executive decrees to open up 210,000 square miles of the Amazon region, including some land legally protected, to foreign oil, gas, logging, and agribusiness investment. Garcia aimed to develop a multi-billion dollar industry to aid Peru’s growth (not in itself a bad thing) and saw the fertile and resource-rich Amazon as a golden opportunity, simply too good to waste. The president oversaw the signings of dozens of contracts with a wide variety of foreign officials and companies. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Garcia underestimated the vociferousness of his opposition. The Amazonian region is home to only 330,000 indigenous people (roughly 1 percent of Peru’s population) arrayed in some 60 tribes. In general, these Amazonians live in remote areas, speak different dialects, are much poorer than the national average, and lack political or social cohesion. But this time around, the indigenous people were organized and determined. They had spent years getting ready for Garcia's assault on their native land. Decades of negative experiences with oil extraction companies had forced them to come together, and to plan ahead. Past protests had not been taken seriously by Peruvian elites and legislative leaders, who merely ignored their claims or temporarily suspended action until the furor died down. Then, as always, they returned to business as usual.

Henry "Chip" Carey: In Honduras, No Easy Solutions

The ongoing crisis in Honduras, stemming from the June 28 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, does not lend itself to many obvious solutions acceptable to both sides. A second-best solution may be all that the new mediator, former Nobel Peace Prize winner and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, might be able to achieve. Thursday’s separate meetings of Arias with Zelaya and then the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, indicated possible common ground, but also no immediate solutions. Neither met his interlocutor, though the talks will continue. Thus far, the United States has backed the Arias mediation, which has bought Washington time before it may have to cut its military assistance to Honduras, which U.S. law mandates once a democratic government has been removed extra-constitutionally. The history of U.S. military cooperation with the government and military of Honduras has remained extensive, since the 1980s, when Honduras hosted the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, who were attempting to undermine the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. Not surprisingly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have persuaded Zelaya, after their Tuesday meeting in Washington, to negotiate, rather than rush right back to Honduras to attempt to take power. On Sunday, July 5, Zelaya had unsuccessfully attempted to land his airplane in the capital, Tegulcigalpa. The Honduran army, though, blocked the air strip, while also killing at least one protestor that had gathered in solidarity to receive Zelaya at the airport. With elections scheduled for later this year, the simplest procedure might simply be to let the voters decide between the two presidential claimants. The problem here, though, is that the Honduran Supreme Court has already ruled that Zelaya is ineligible to compete under the existing, single term-limit system. Indeed, his desire to run again for office was exactly what spurred the apparent coup in the first place.

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