Dexter Boniface

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Coup in Honduras

In Democratic Crisis, Honduras, Human Rights, Inter-American Relations, Military, United States Government on July 9, 2009 at 11:24 pm

This blog post is dedicated to the 2009 coup in Honduras. It covers the origins of the crisis, issues of constitutionality, the reaction and mediation of the international community, and what the crisis says about the state of democracy in Latin America.

What happened on June 28, 2009?

Around 5 a.m. on June 28 Honduras’ elected President Manuel Zelaya was roused from his bed by the military and (apparently while still wearing his pajamas) put on a plane to Costa Rica. Speaking from San Jose the same day Zelaya declared that he had been kidnapped in an illegal coup. In the meantime the Honduran Congress—citing a dubious resignation letter—voted to accept Zelaya’s ‘resignation’ and replace him with the next person in the line of presidential succession, the president of Congress Roberto Micheletti (the Honduran vice-president had earlier vacated his office in order to contest the presidential elections scheduled for later this year).

The Origins of the Crisis in Honduras

The crisis was largely the result of President Zelaya’s own political machinations. Zelaya had proposed to hold a non-binding referendum on Sunday June 28 on whether or not Hondurans supported the idea of redrawing the constitution, a maneuver widely interpreted as a Chavez-inspired bid by Zelaya to do away with the constitution’s unambiguous ban on presidential re-election. The Supreme Court (and, in turn, the attorney general and Congress) had declared the referendum to be illegal since certain clauses of the constitution are considered inviolable and because ultimate authority for revising the constitution rests with Congress. In spite of strenuous opposition Zelaya stubbornly insisted on holding the poll and sought the military’s cooperation in distributing the ballots. When General Romeo Vásquez, head of the armed forces, refused to cooperate he was sacked by the President (only to be questionably ‘reinstated’ by an immediate ruling of the Supreme Court). The following day (Friday, June 26), the defiant president and his supporters seized the ballots from a local air force base and vowed to continue with the referendum. The Court and attorney general then instructed General Vásquez to capture Zelaya and recover the ballots.

Issues of Constitutionality or When is a Coup a Coup?

In this crisis both sides have acted irresponsibly. Zelaya committed the first sin by failing to respect the rulings of the Supreme Court. He also placed his own political ambitions above a constitution that has done well to preserve stability in a fragile democracy. However even if Zelaya’s actions merited his removal from office they did not justify a military action replete with arbitrary detentions, fake documents, a media crackdown, and new restrictions on rights of assembly. If Zelaya is guilty of treason (as the Court alleges) then he should be tried and removed from office legally not overthrown by force.  In the words of Eduardo Enrique Reina, Zelaya’s minister of communication, “The legal mechanism they used to get rid of Zelaya was a machine gun.”

Still, the coup architects maintain that they did act constitutionally, a view that has been echoed in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and by Republican lawmakers (including Florida Representatives Connie Mack, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Senator Mel Martinez) — not to mention Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer. A report by the Law Library of Congress furthermore found that critical aspects of Zelaya’s removal were by all appearances constitutional, however the report has generated considerable controversy. Moreover, even the top Honduran military lawyer, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, acknowledges that they broke the law, as does Deputy Attorney General Roy David Urtecho. Furthermore, Article 71 of the Honduran Constitution specifies that, “No person may be detained or imprisoned for more than twenty-four hours without appearing before a competent authority for trial.”

Imagine, if you will, that an American president is found to be overstepping constitutional boundaries by, say, conducting warrantless surveillance of US citizens. The justice system declares his actions illegal. But the president, citing national security concerns, defies their rulings. Days later, American special forces storm the White House, seize the unpopular president and fly him to Panama. What would you call that? Many American presidents have acted unconstitutionally. However, none have suffered the humiliation of being kidnapped at gunpoint.

My take: By acting with haste and recklessness Zelaya’s detractors ceded the moral high ground before exhausting all of the means at their disposal including international mediation. In so doing they repeated the mistakes of those who acted unlawfully to overthrow Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April 2002—only to see Chávez returned to power two days later stronger and more defiant than ever.

The Reaction of the International Community

The coup in Honduras was widely condemned by the international community including the United Nations (where Zelaya spoke on June 30th), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the European Union (which suspended some $92 million in aid), and the United States (which suspended aid, revoked the visas of four Honduran officials and halted military cooperation with Honduras). President Obama stated bluntly that, “the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras.” From Moscow, he later declared that, “America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies…because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.”

The Organization of American States. In 1991 the countries of the hemisphere formed a compact to defend and promote democracy that was later formalized in the Inter-American Democratic Charter or IADC of 2001. The OAS’s Democratic Charter has provided a foundation for reacting to the ongoing political developments in Honduras. Responding to a request for mediation from the Honduran government two days prior to the coup, the OAS Permanent Council first issued a resolution on the situation in Honduras [see CP/RES. 952 (1699/09) of June 26, 2009] citing Article 17 of the IADC. On the day of the coup, the Permanent Council met (see video here) and issued a strongly worded resolution [see CP/RES. 953 (1700/09)] and called for a special session of the OAS General Assembly to take place at the headquarters of the Organization beginning Tuesday, June 30, 2009. The Foreign Ministers then issued a 3-day ultimatum to the government [see AG/RES. 1 (XXXVII-E/09) of July 1] to restore Zelaya or face suspension. The OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, subsequently traveled to Honduras to try to broker a negotiated settlement. However, when the Honduran government refused to comply, the OAS issued a second resolution [see AG/RES. 2 (XXXVII-E/09) of July 4] unanimously suspending the government consistent with Articles 20 and 21 of the Democratic Charter.

The OAS has, in turn, become a political target. Conservative commentators such as Glenn Garvin, Mary Anastasia O’Grady and Alvaro Vargas Llosa maintain that the OAS applies a double standard in its defense of democracy, rushing to the defense of besieged left-wing presidents while ignoring the threats to democracy posed by illiberal populists  (viz., Chavez, Morales, Correa, Ortega, and Zelaya) when they are in power.  In an interview with Andres Oppenheimer, Antonio Ledezma — the effectively deposed opposition mayor of Caracas, Venezuela — complained that the OAS is degenerating into “a mutual protection club for power-hungry presidents.” The OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, responded to these objections noting that “the OAS answers to its member states” and that Honduras’ expulsion adheres to the principles, practices and purposes of the organization.

Obama and the Partisan Split in the United States

As the crisis dragged on, a clear partisan split emerged in the United States with several Republican members of Congress strongly opposing Zelaya’s reinstatement. Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), in a rather irresponsible move, promised to hold up several confirmation hearings in protest of the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis (only in November did DeMint finally relent). On the other side of the aisle, several Democrats and NGOs urged Congress and the Obama administration to more aggressively condemn the coup and enact tougher sanctions, though President Obama maintained that he “can’t push a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.”

The U.S. State Department, in what some regarded as a softening of the U.S.’s initial position, responded to conservatives’ concerns in a letter addressed to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter suggested that the United States was unlikely to impose sanctions on Honduras in the event that Zelaya is not reinstated–a position welcomed by conservatives but bitterly opposed by many on the left. Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern that the State Department letter “risks sending a confusing signal” about the United States’ position. Kerry laid the blame for the crisis on Micheletti’s “uncompromising power-grab” and later sparred with DeMint over the senator’s fact-finding mission in Honduras. The State Department for its part has equivocated on whether or not Zelaya’s removal officially meets the legal definition of a military coup d’etat.

My take: Promoting democracy abroad is an admirable goal that serves vital US interests. The United States and the international community should remain steadfast in their opposition to Zelaya’s illegal ouster and not extend recognition to the Micheletti government. If the de facto government remains defiant and ongoing mediation fails, the United States and other members of the Organization of American States (OAS) should consider additional sanctions against Honduras. By the same token, the OAS should prevail upon Zelaya to respect the checks and balances that come with democracy. In short, the international community should continue to push for a negotiated settlement. The alternative is economic and political isolation for Honduras.

Negotiations and Border Crossings (July-August)

A week after the coup, Zelaya vowed to return to Honduras in spite of warnings that he would immediately be arrested on multiple charges if he did so. However, on Sunday July 5th–a day after Honduras’ suspension from the OAS–military vehicles blocked the runways and prevented Zelaya’s plane from landing. In violent clashes near the airport, a teenager was killed. After stops in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Zelaya next traveled to Washington where he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A new American-led initiative to have Costa Rican President Oscar Arias mediate the political crisis was announced. In spite of Arias’ efforts, however, joint negotiations (begun on July 9th in Costa Rica and postponed on July 23rd) produced few signs of compromise. Zelaya then tried to galvanize his supporters by staging a short-lived border crossing into Honduras from Nicaragua on July 24th, a move Hillary Clinton described as “reckless.”

The OAS subsequently organized a special envoy to pressure the interim government into accepting Arias’ compromise plan. After some delay the de facto government agreed to receive the OAS envoy, only to reverse their position before eventually letting the high-level delegation into the country. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also visited the country from August 17-21 to observe the human rights situation in the country; the commission’s preliminary report on Honduras’ human rights situation was highly critical.

Is there still room for compromise? (Part One) Perhaps. Zelaya’s term is nearly finished (it ends Jan. 27th) and he has agreed not to seek re-election under any circumstances. The United States, the OAS, and the Honduran military all back a negotiated settlement, and the Honduran Congress agreed to study the multi-point plan proposed by Arias.  The so-called San Jose Accord calls for the reinstatement of Zelaya, an amnesty for actors on both sides and early elections (elections were scheduled and ultimately held on Nov. 29th).

However, the Micheletti government remained firmly opposed to Zelaya’s reinstatement and the Supreme Court indicated that Zelaya would face trial if he returned to the country. In a counter-proposal, Micheletti offered to resign his post as long as Zelaya did the same. The OAS, however, contends that any negotiated settlement must restore Zelaya to the presidency. Zelaya, in turn, headed to the United States to press his case that the Obama administration should take a tougher stand against the coup. The United States subsequently announced that it was permanently suspending non-humanitarian aid to Honduras, including U.S. Millennium Challenge Account funds worth as much as $200 million.

Can Honduras Vote Itself Out of a Coup? The U.S. furthermore threatened not to recognize the outcome of Honduras’ presidential elections (see my blogpost: Honduras Votes) unless a political settlement is first reached–a position shared by Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and most other Latin American countries (with the notable exception of Panama)–but opposed by those that see the elections as a viable solution to the crisis (including, among others, Micheletti himself and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III). The de facto government announced that the elections would be held as scheduled. Yet others have expressed the opinion that, “If Micheletti thinks that Honduras will overcome its crisis by holding elections under the current circumstances, he’s dreaming. The winner of the elections will remain an international pariah, and Honduras will become increasingly poorer.”

Surprise! The Return of Zelaya (September)

Zelaya again made headlines on Monday, September 21st, when it was announced that the deposed president had secretly returned to Honduras. It was soon confirmed that Zelaya was being housed in the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa where he addressed his supporters and called for dialogue. The de facto government responded by issuing a curfew, forcefully removing protestors from the streets, cutting off utilities to the embassy, and demanding that Brazil surrender the deposed leader (the Honduran de facto government later took their case against Brazil to the World Court).

Enter Brazil. The Brazilian President Lula da Silva explained that letting Zelaya into its embassy was “what any democratic country would do, ” adding sharply that, “We can’t accept that for political differences people think they have the right to depose a democratically-elected president …  If you like or don’t like something you change it in an election. What you can not do is accept a coup leader who thinks he has the right to be president.” The Brazilian government furthermore warned that it would not tolerate any actions taken against its embassy and personnel (the OAS and UN Security Council later joined Brazil in its condemnation of actions taken against the embassy, which included reports of a toxic gas attack). Lula, speaking at the United Nations called for Zelaya’s reinstatement, noting that, “Unless there is political will, we will see more coups like the one that toppled the constitutional president of Honduras.” Analysts (and many Brazilians) are divided over Brazil‘s seemingly risky role in the crisis.

In the meantime, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias urged calm while expressing hope that fresh negotiations could help end the crisis. At the same time, though, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS (and a hard-line foreign service officer) Lewis Anselem, criticized Zelaya for his “irresponsible and foolish” return from exile before a settlement was reached.

Is there still room for compromise? (Part Two) In a major development, Micheletti announced that he was willing to talk with Zelaya “as long as he explicitly recognises the presidential elections.” The de facto government then indicated that it would welcome a new OAS mission to the country (a move endorsed by the United States)–only to later expel the OAS representatives from the country and then re-invite them. On September 27th, in a divisive and ultimately counter-productive move, Micheletti issued a 45-day suspension of basic civil liberties (later revoked). The move exposed emerging divisions within Micheletti’s support base, with  some business and military leaders expressing a willingness to allow Zelaya’s return to power. The move also heightened accusations of abuse by Honduran security forces.

A Negotiated End to the Crisis? (October-November)

Negotiations in late September and October neared a major breakthrough when negotiators for both sides appeared to agree on every major point of the San Jose accord–except the return of Zelaya to the presidency.

The United States to the Rescue? As negotiations reached an impasse, the United States stepped up its pressure by sending a high-level envoy to Honduras made up of Tom Shannon (then U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs), Craig Kelly, and Dan Restrepo. At last a power-sharing dealdubbed the Guaymuras Accord (or Tegucigalpa/San Jose Accord)– was reached to form a national unity government, create a truth commission to investigate Zelaya’s ouster, and hold new presidential elections as scheduled. As part of the pact, the decision of whether or not to reinstate Zelaya was left to the Honduran Congress. Unlike the San Jose accord, the pact does not include an amnesty. However ambiguities in the accord left many to conclude that “the political waters are in many ways murkier than they have been since Zelaya was toppled on June 28.”

Although the accord did not explicitly guarantee his immediate return to power, Zelaya indicated that he would consider the deal broken if he wasn’t quickly reinstated. Yet with the election imminent the Honduran Congress appeared to be in no hurry to decide Zelaya’s fate (the decision was eventually slated for Dec. 2nd, a few days after the election). It announced it would first weigh the opinions of Honduras’ Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the Human Rights ombudsman. Moreover, it remained unclear how the international community would react if the Honduran Congress decided not to reinstate Zelaya. In an interview with CNN en Español that startled many, Tom Shannon indicated that the United States would be willing to recognize the results of Honduras’ upcoming election–with or without Zelaya–as long as the accord was upheld. Yet this position put the United States at odds with most the region’s leaders (e.g., the OAS and Rio Group) and provoked a strong rebuke from Zelaya.

Totally Dead? After a week  of inaction by Congress, Zelaya declared the accord “totally dead.” Still the United States held out hope that negotiations could be revived and (re)dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly to Tegucigalpa–even as Zelaya’s supporters were calling for an election boycott. However, Kelly failed to make any progress during his two-day visit. Moreover, Zelaya subsequently indicated he would not accept the outcome of the country’s upcoming elections nor return to the presidency after they take place.

Who’s to blame for the breakdown? Lanny Davis, a well-connected attorney representing the Honduran Business Council, places the blame squarely on Zelaya. The left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs and the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, blamed Micheletti and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. No doubt both sides of the conflict share the blame for the breakdown.

Will the international community recognize the upcoming election if Zelaya is not reinstated? A strong case can be made for not recognizing Honduras’ upcoming elections. As Christopher Sabatini and Daniel Altschuler recently argued, “U.S. acceptance of the elections results would have revealed a troubling willingness to allow elected leaders to be removed as long as reasonably fair elections follow” and “would have signaled to would-be coup plotters in the region that election years offer opportune moments to overthrow democratically-elected presidents.” Still, in a recent New York Times article, analyst Shelley McConnell noted that if Mr. Zelaya is not returned, the “pragmatic middle ground” may be to work with the O.A.S. to recognize the elections “under protest of how they came about.” For more on the presidential election and Zelaya’s future, see my blogpost: Honduras Votes.

Broader Trends and Implications

The Honduran crisis is emblematic of Latin America’s wider problems with democracy, including weak political institutions, weak rule of law, hyper-presidentialism or caudillismo, the perils of illiberal populism and social-political polarization, politicized term limits, the influence of big business, and the ongoing power of Latin America’s militaries (see related blogpost). The coup has also  had regional reverberations most notably in Nicaragua.

It also shows the limits of the international community, and specifically the OAS, to take preventative action that would curb executive abuses of power that undermine democracy and often lead to political crises such as this (recent developments in Nicaragua provide another example–see blogpost). Indeed, the conflict in Honduran has exposed both the importance and the flaws of the  Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Similarly, the crisis has demonstrated the limitations of the OAS when it comes to taking action against a country which has openly defied its mandates. Throughout the crisis, pressure from the United States appears to have been more decisive than pressure from the OAS or other international actors–with the possible exception of Brazil.

Finally, it confirms that traditional military coups are becoming a thing of the past, but quasi-constitutional coups–in which the head of state is removed by force (or the threat of force) and is replaced by the constitutional successor to power–have emerged as a new and ongoing threat.  Others are calling it a ‘soft coup‘ or, my favorite so far, ‘impeachment on steroids‘. Read the rest of this entry »

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