The return of the coup

The return of the coup

The Wall Street Journal’s Mary O’Grady argues that the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was not in fact a coup, since the president was himself holding a referendum in violation of an order by the country’s supreme court. But I don’t think one need defend Zelaya to argue that sending troops to break into a president’s house and put him on a plane out of the country is generally not the best way to protect “the independence of institutions that keep presidents from becoming dictators.”

If this weekend’s coup seems like a bit of a throwback to the Cold War era, that’s because it is. Research by political scientists Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans, which I wrote about in the May/June print issue of FP shows the number of coups has declined significantly since the fall of the Berlin wall:

And it’s not just the number of coups that has changed. Those who seize power are now far more likely to give it up. Since 1990, two-thirds of governments resulting from coups allowed elections in less than five years. The end of the zero-sum competition of the cold war probably has a lot to do with it:

Since the end of Cold War rivalry for spheres of influence, Western powers have become less willing to tolerate dictatorships—and more likely to make aid contingent upon holding elections.

This does seem to be playing out in the Honduran case, with the Obama administration demanding the reinstatement of Zelaya, an ally of Hugo Chavez and frequent critic of U.S. policy. A few decades ago, it’s doubtful that the White House would have acted so quickly to condemn the overthrow of an unfriendly leftist leader.

Central America’s first coup in 16 years is certainly bad news (as it should be noted, was Zelaya’s increasingly authoritarian behavior) but these events are becoming increasingly rare, and once the dust settles, Honduras has a greater chance at returning to democracy than ever before. 

Chart: Goemans and Marinov