Hundreds of emails from Hondurans flooded my in-box last week after I reported on the military's arrest of President Manuel Zelaya, as ordered by the Supreme Court, and his subsequent banishment from the country.
Mr. Zelaya's violations of the rule of law in recent months were numerous. But the tipping point came 10 days ago, when he led a violent mob that stormed a military base to seize and distribute Venezuelan-printed ballots for an illegal referendum.
All but a handful of my letters pleaded for international understanding of the threat to the constitutional democracy that Mr. Zelaya presented. One phrase occurred again and again: "Please pray for us."
Raul Castro, left, Manuel Zelaya, center, and Hugo Chavez in Managua, Nicaragua, June 29.
Hondurans have good cause for calling on divine intervention: Reason has gone AWOL in places like Turtle Bay and Foggy Bottom. Ruling the debate on Mr. Zelaya's behavior is Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, who is now the reigning international authority on "democracy."
Mr. Chávez is demanding that Mr. Zelaya be reinstated and is even threatening to overthrow the new Honduran president, Roberto Micheletti. He's leading the charge from the Organization of American States (OAS). The United Nations and the Obama administration are falling in line.
Is this insane? You bet. We have fallen through the looking glass and it's time to review how hemispheric relations came to such a sad state.
The story begins in 2004, when Mr. Chávez was still an aspiring despot and the U.S. pursued a policy of appeasement toward him. Not surprisingly, that only heightened his appetite for power.
Mr. Chávez had already rewritten the Venezuelan Constitution, taken over the judiciary and the national electoral council (CNE), militarized the government, and staked out an aggressive, anti-American foreign policy promising to spread his revolution around the hemisphere.
The Americas in the News
Get the latest information in Spanish from The Wall Street Journal's Americas page.
Many Venezuelans were alarmed, and the opposition had labored to collect signatures for a presidential recall referendum permitted under the constitution. As voting day drew near, Mr. Chávez behaved as if he knew his days were numbered. The European Union refused to send an observer team, citing lack of transparency. The OAS did send observers, and in the months and weeks ahead of the vote mission chief Fernando Jaramillo complained bitterly about the state's intimidation tactics against the population. Mr. Chávez gave OAS Secretary General César Gaviria an ultimatum: Either get Mr. Jaramillo out of the country or the referendum would be quashed. Mr. Chávez was appeased. Mr. Jaramillo was withdrawn.
The Carter Center was also invited to "observe," and former President Jimmy Carter was welcomed warmly by Mr. Chávez upon his arrival in Venezuela.
A key problem, beyond the corrupted voter rolls and government intimidation, was that Mr. Chávez did not allow an audit of his electronic voting machines. Exit polls showed him losing the vote decisively. But in the middle of the night, the minority members of the CNE were kicked out of the election command center. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Chávez claimed victory. There was never a credible audit of the paper ballots against the tallies in the voting machines.
Mr. Carter's approval notwithstanding, the proper U.S. and OAS response was obvious: The process had been shrouded in state secrets and therefore it was impossible to endorse or reject the results. Venezuelan patriots begged for help from the outside world. Instead, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Roger Noriega, and the OAS blessed the charade.
There was never any explanation for the blind endorsement, but behind the scenes there were claims that Mr. Chávez threatened to call his militia to the streets and spill blood. The oil fields were to be burned. To this day, the opposition contends that the U.S. and Mr. Gaviria made a cold calculation that caving in to Mr. Chávez would avoid violence.
Predictably, Washington's endorsement of the flawed electoral process was a green light. Mr. Chávez grew more aggressive, emboldened by his "legitimate" status. He set about using his oil money to destabilize the Bolivian and Ecuadorean democracies and to help Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner get elected. Soviet-backed Fidel Castro was able to intimidate his neighbors in the 1960s and '70s, and Mr. Chávez has done the same thing in the new millennium. This has given him vast power at the OAS.
Hondurans had the courage to push back. Now Chávez-supported agitators are trying to stir up violence. Yesterday afternoon airline service was suspended in Tegucigalpa when Mr. Zelaya tried to return to the country and his plane was not permitted to land. There were reports of violence between his backers and troops.
This is a moment when the U.S. ought to be on the side of the rule of law, which the Honduran court and Congress upheld. If Washington does not reverse course, it will be one more act of appeasement toward an ambitious and increasingly dangerous dictator.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com