Publication Year



Honduras, human rights, Latin American politics, coup, 2009


Comparative Politics | International Relations


The 2009 coup in Honduras sparked a crisis in inter-American affairs; after President Manuel Zelaya’s forced removal from office, practically every country in the Western Hemisphere rushed to condemn Honduras’ backslide into authoritarianism. Beyond being merely an unfortunate political event in Central America’s most impoverished nation, the coup represented a challenge to the inter-American human rights and democracy promotion regime that came about as a response to brutal Latin American dictatorships in the Cold War era. Even more abstractly, the coup – and other American states’ reaction to it – signaled the triumph of “realism over principles” for some observers, while serving as a positive example of the Organization of American States’ ability to mobilize American countries for a common goal, even if it failed. Theory aside, data from non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations show that human rights violations and crime rates increased dramatically after the coup, even when democracy was restored.

It would be easy in this case to say that self-interest won out over ideals. This reductive narrative would look at what happened in Honduras and say that the U.S. weighed their options and decided that democracy and human rights in Honduras were worth sacrificing in order to satisfy an array of political and strategic interests that the U.S. had in maintaining the deposed president out of power. However, no decision in foreign policy is made according to only interests or only ideals; it is invariably a combination of the two that involves trade-offs between morality and self-interest. Rather than claim that the U.S. made a rational decision to pursue its own interests at the complete expense of its values, it is more useful to examine the struggle between ideas and interests that played out in U.S. foreign policy after the coup, and why it ended the way it did. Understanding how the U.S. will respond to attacks on democracy and human rights in Latin America is imperative in a region still struggling to consolidate democratic systems of government.

Accordingly, this project used the 2009 coup in Honduras as a case study with which to examine the role of human rights and democracy promotion in inter-American affairs, with special emphasis on the United States’ treatment of the coup and subsequent elections in Honduras. Rather than try to blame or absolve the U.S. for the Honduran military government’s success (not in executing the coup, but in their hold on the government that prevented Zelaya from returning to power by holding new elections), the paper seeks to examine the role of ideals of democracy and human rights in inter-American foreign relations. Specifically, it seeks to understand what combination of ideas – in this case, democracy and human rights – and strategic interests – economic, military, and political - form U.S. human rights policy. Analysis will be conducted through the lens of three principal theoretical strains of international relations, - neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism - and assess which one likely formed the rationale of U.S. decision-makers during the coup.

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status

International Relations

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License


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