Latin America watchers have been transfixed over the past week with developments in Honduras.  At first glance, the issue is simple: a group of armed thugs overthrew a democratic regime.  This sort of military coup — which echoes the regimes of cliched colonels in sunglasses — was thought to have been relegated to the Latin American past. Indeed, the whole episode is absurd, and would be laughable if it weren’t for the very real use of violence by the new junta led by Roberto Micheletti.

The coup itself is not a fundamental challenge to U.S. foreign policy.  It ought to be forthrightly condemned.  The lack of legitimacy of the new regime is obvious, and as a consequence is unlikely to serve as a model or precedent for other efforts to subvert democracy.

The bigger challenge for the United States is the dynamic which led to the coup in the first place.  There is debate over whether Honduran President Zelaya’s effort to rewrite the constitution to allow him to run for another term served as a motivation or simply a pretext for the coup.  Al Giordano argues, for instance, that statements by the junta make clear that the attitude of the military is, “In other words, elections, if the people choose a government that is not right of center, will be ripped up by this gang of military thugs.”  But, even if we grant that the military’s motives were not pure, we have to address the question of whether the Chavez model of democratic authoritarianism is a threat.

Fundamentally, we have to be clear about what we mean by “democracy.”  It can’t just be majority rule.  It have to involve some respect for minority rights and for a durable process that will allow democracy to flourish in the long run.

The biggest threat to democracy in Latin America is not anachronistic coups by an absurd group of thugs, it is the internal subversion of democracy where democratic means are used to undermine democratic principles.

Chavez in Venezuela has clearly violated democratic norms.  He has used salami-slicing tactics to gradually increase his power and erode limits on his regime.  By use of intimidation, bribery, and demagoguery his has manipulated elections and referendums to enhance his position in defiance of the long-term stability of the state.  He has refused to accept defeats, and instead his pattern has been to insist on returning to the well, over and over, until he manages to cobble together a victory.  His aggregation of power has been ratchet-like, making his regime increasingly authoritarian.

There is no doubt that in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America, the legitimate aspirations of the population are being blocked by entrenched economic and political interests.  Finding a balance between creating political structures that are capable of implementing even a leftist agenda while still sustaining the underlying principles of democracy is a tricky process.

Condemning the Honduran coup is both easy and necessary.  But the Honduran coup is not the main challenge to democracy in the hemisphere.  The bigger challenge for the United States is finding a way to promote sustainable and responsive democracies that have robust safeguards against Chavez’s form of creeping authoritarianism.  Chavez himself is a clown and Venezuela no threat to the United States, but the appeal of his methods is insidious needs to be challenged.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. This essay previously appeared as ASP’s Flash Point blog as “American Foreign Policy, the Honduras Coup, and Democracy.”