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The Americas Reelect: George Washington's Ghost

July 27, 2009

In the early hours of 28 June 2009, Manuel Zelaya was removed from the Honduran presidency and deported to Costa Rica by his own military. A month on, a key issue in the unfolding Honduran crisis remains Zelaya's ambition to change the Honduran constitution to allow himself to run for a second term.

A day after the drama in Tegucigalpa, the presidents of Colombia and the United States met at the White House. Barack Obama and Álvaro Uribe discussed the future of the US-Colombia free-trade pact, human rights, and drug policy; but looming over the conversation was the question of whether in the coming months Uribe would himself attempt to alter the Colombian constitution to allow himself to run for a third consecutive term in the 2010 elections. 

As the meeting drew to a close, Obama noted that George Washington had buttressed his own reputation, and American democracy, by refusing a third term and stepping down in 1797. Obama's message to Uribe was lost on no one. It was the same one exchanged between two of the men's predecessors 180 years ago. For in 1829, William Henry Harrison - then the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, who would in 1841 serve as president for one month - cited Washington's self-restraint in a letter warning Simón Bolívar, the hero of Colombian independence, against a lifetime presidency.

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John M Carey is the Wentworth professor in the social sciences at Dartmouth College. This article is based on a longer essay that appears in Summer 2009 issue of Americas Quarterly