President Obama and Secretary Clinton have vowed to support the ousted Zelaya and have declared the "coup" to be illegal. The role America plays in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, ever since Mr. Monroe gave us dominion over it, is critical and any action we take now will have vast repercussions in events yet to unfold. To analyze the proper course of action, let's do a quick recap of what happened.
-In November 2008, Zelaya announces his intention to put a fourth box on the upcoming ballot allowing for the creation of a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. While the wording of the proposition was vague, only 7 of the constitution's 375 articles cannot be modified by a constitutional majority. Because these 7 exceptions concern the limits of the terms and powers of the president, Zelaya's intentions are obvious.
- The Honduran Supreme Court found that the referendum was illegal because it would modify unmodifiable articles of the constitution. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, chief of Honduran armed forces, followed the ruling and refused to aid Zelaya in distributing referendum materials (which were printed in Venezuela), so Zelaya fired him. The court found that firing unconstitutional as well.
- The Attorney General and the National Congress each concurred with the court that the referendum was illegal and in the lead-up to the referendum date, the National Congress, including Zelaya's own party therein, began to consider ways to impeach Zelaya.
- On 28 June 2009, the day of the referendum, after anti-Zelaya protesters marched on Tegucigalpa, the armed forces seized Zelaya and extradited him from the country. Zelaya's attempts to return to Honduras have been unsuccessful and mediation between Zelaya the newly installed President Micheletti by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias have been unsuccessful due to both sides' unwillingness to compromise.
For my work in Washington D.C., I attended the nomination hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the U.S. Ambassadors to Brazil, Mexico, and Haiti and the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. Honduras came up, and here are the transcripts (as best I could produce at the time).
Q13: Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)
Returning to Honduras: some dictators use democracy to legitimize a power grab instead of bolstering democracy. The people of Honduras were concerned that a person would install themselves permanently in the presidency. Zelaya was trying to change the constitution to continue his term in office. Zelaya used mobs to distribute ballots created in Venezuela. Zelaya’s own party said his move was illegal. I have here the order from the supreme court of Honduras to arrest the ousted president. The military was ordered to do this by the unanimous opinion of the court. They followed the Constitution to prevent a president from destroying the constitution. Their constitution says that not only are presidents term limited, but if they attempt to extend their reign, they automatically resign.
A13: Arturo Valenzuela, Nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs
As far as I know, the Honduran congress did not issue a declaration of unconstitutionality prior to Zelaya’s removal. The solution is not for the military to exile the president without charge; judicial processes should have been used. If a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court orders the U.S. President to be removed from the country by the military, that justice is breaking the constitution….
…the congress voted almost unanimously, the court did vote unanimously, the attorney general issued charges, Zelaya’s party was in Washington to lobby against US supporting Zelaya. He resigned as soon as he attempted to extend his power. The military had to be used due to corruption of the police forces by Venezuela.
The disagreement is that the military used this option. The U.S. is not the only one to see the facts and say that it was illegal.
Demint (cutting in): Castro, Chavez, Ortega… all good friends of ours… (muted laughter)
Valenzuela: There was a unanimous declaration that a disruption occurred in the constitutional order. In my study of military coups, this is a textbook example of a coup, though I would not call it a coup because the military did not take power. I will call it a “disruption in the constitutional order.”
There is no question that Zelaya was going to use the referendum to extend his term of office. Should we allow dictators to legitimize themselves?
We need to use constitutional means to protect democracy.
DeMint: But he was trying to change the constitution! And constitutionally he removed himself from office. When we find ourselves on the side of Ortega, Castro and Chavez, we need to reevaluate our position.
Needless to say, I don't agree much with Senator DeMint, but he seems to hit the nail right on the head here. I see five reasons why the U.S. should be more critical to Zelaya and supportive of the ouster:
- There is no realist U.S. interest in keeping an anti-U.S. leader in power in Honduras.
- It seems clear that in this extra-constitutional crisis, the constitutional order was followed as best the Honduran government could. Zelaya forced his own ouster.
- Regardless, what happens in Honduras is the Hondurans' business. The proper order might not be followed 100% of the time (when is it in America?), but that is certainly not grounds for U.S. intervention, especially when we consider how well intervention has worked elsewhere in the world.
- For the good of democracy in Latin America, we should not be complicit in allowing dictators to hijack democratic processes. Democracy is not about voting or majoritarianism, it is about the protection of civil rights with sovereignty vested in the people. If the democratic tradition in Latin America continues to be colored by such misconceptions, then it is doomed to continually produce similar results.
- Perhaps the biggest thing missed in this whole process is that Zelaya is wildly unpopular in Honduras. His party has abandoned him and his countrymen don't want him.
Obama needs to explain why he is so supportive of Zelaya, because there are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't be.