Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Honduras’ Holding Pattern

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Things aren’t going well in Honduras. Lines have been drawn on both sides now, pitting the ousted president Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (backed by the international community, including the U.S.) against the de facto government, led by Roberto Micheletti (backed by the Honduran Congress—where he came from—a majority of the Honduran people and a handful of conservatives.) The question is, now that the Organization of American States (with the support of the U.S.) has declared the June 28th removal of Zelaya an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime,” denounced the military’s actions of June 28th, and called for his return, what’s going to happen?

The international community is squarely in favor of declaring this a coup and having Zelaya returned to power. The Honduran Congress, armed forces, Supreme Court, and many of its people refuse to allow it. Just yesterday when Zelaya (unwisely) chose to try to return on (again, unwisely) a Venezuelan jet, he was turned back by the military blocking the airport.

Meanwhile, the OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza is engaging in shuttle diplomacy, going between the different actors in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and trying to foster some compromise.

Before laying out my position on this, to avoid any confusion at a time (and in a region) where people like to ideologically pigeonhole others and claim that one or the other is not on the “side of freedom,” let me say the following in as direct a fashion as possible:

President Zelaya had violated the constitution: first in pushing for re-election (it’s unconstitutional for a sitting president to push for re-election), second in ignoring the vote of the Congress and third in overriding the Supreme Court’s decision that the vote to be held on June 28th was unconstitutional.

He also demonstrated scary, mob rule tendencies when he led an angry crowd to seize the ballots after the commander-in-chief of the armed forces refused to cooperate with the vote and resigned.

But these constitutional violations and troubling signs of mob rule do not justify removal and exile at gunpoint. In countries governed by rules rather than political whim, these offenses would have led to impeachment or (without the constitutional means for that) a criminal trial. The Supreme Court never conducted a trial; it simply issued a decision.

In short, whatever we may think about the actions that preceded the events of June 28th, whatever we may think about Zelaya’s friendship with other presidents in the hemisphere, this was a coup and should be treated as such.

Saying that is a shame, since it does turn Mel Zelaya into an undeserving victim—but a victim of political expediency over rules.

I’m reminded of how John Adams once defined a republic: as a “government of laws, and not of men.” Ultimately it was people (men and women) who opted to violate the legal process for removing Zelaya—who himself had violated the law—when they removed him with the thinnest of fig leaves of procedure. This was particularly brought home to me when commentators like Roger Noriega, as he did on the Lehrer NewsHour last week, spoke repeatedly about the “Honduran people” and what they wanted.

The fact is, laws were broken on both sides, but as weakly and incompletely as international laws protecting executive overreach are enforced, the constitutional process for removing a president has to remain sacrosanct. Imagine the international morass we would get in if we started to evaluate the worthiness of removing a president based on how they have behaved. (Some people have even justified bucking the international community based on the unsubstantiated allegations of the de facto Honduran foreign minister that President Zelaya was engaged in narcotics trafficking.) These are moments for mediation, dialogue, and independent investigation with standard burden of proof—things that require international good offices and objective initiative—not for the unilateral removal of an elected leader.

But now we’re in a strange position where a minority of conservative commentators are endorsing what happened in Honduras. Their positions risk emboldening government figures inside Honduras and complicating the task of negotiating a much-needed compromise. Too often I’ve seen ideologues—on both sides—stick to their dogmatic positions in ways that only sharpen and reinforce untenable positions.

Besides the practical implications of their arguments, though, here are some other problems in their position. First, as I said above, not one of the commentators has explained why the institutional deadlock that occurred couldn’t have been resolved short of packing up the president at gunpoint and shipping him into exile. Honduras is not a case—as in Venezuela today or Peru under Alberto Fujimori—where other institutions (the Congress and the Supreme Court) have been so vitiated that they can’t assert their own authority. Congress and the Supreme Court did condemn Zelaya, and it wasn’t as if Zelaya was so popular (with public approval at the time below 30%) that he could have called a massive referendum. There was space and opportunity to do this institutionally. The Congress, Supreme Court and the armed forces simply chose not to. That should be condemned, and doing so doesn’t endorse President Zelaya’s actions or his plans.

But second, let’s just consider the practical implications of pursuing the course of action that logically follows from conservatives’ recommendations: endorsing—even applauding—the coup and allowing the de facto government to remain in power. The international community has roundly condemned the events of June 28th; the OAS Permanent Assembly and General Assembly have “vehemently” denounced the removal of Zelaya; and the European Union has pulled its ambassadors from Honduras.

Thought we were unpopular in the region a few years ago? Try bucking the tide now and embracing Micheletti’s government. It would not only scuttle the decades of consensus over the idea that the forced removal of a president should be condemned (regardless of the conditions), it would also open up a Pandora’s box of when and when not to view as legitimate the alteration of power. If we were to go down that course of debating when a president can and can not be packed up on a plane and forced out of the country, given the ideological polarization in the region today we’d never get to any consensus again about when a coup is not a coup. In fact, it would take us decades back. (Who could be next? Colom because of the allegations of murder? Uribe because of his efforts to run for the third term? The mind boggles.)

But third, the most important reason for the current course of action in understanding and supporting the institutional procedure for reacting to these events is that it cuts the political, demagogic legs out from under Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Imagine just for a moment that we did what some conservatives are advocating. We would play right into his hands. It would be a field day for the blowhard populist from Caracas: he would denounce U.S. efforts, spin the wildest of conspiracy theories, and make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to rally other countries to check the excesses of the Bolivarian Revolution.

We must make the point that Zelaya himself has broken the constitution and ridden roughshod over the checks and balances of power, but after we demonstrate that the U.S. and the international community support institutional, legal procedures for punishing executives who overstep their bounds. Arguing that executive excess justifies removal from office, when all the legal routes for his or her removal under the constitution have not been exhausted, only emboldens hardliners—of whatever stripe.


Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

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