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Last Updated: 07/04/2009
Honduras: the coup and the constitution
Ross Ryan

It is clear that what happened in Honduras last week was not a straightforward military coup; Mr Zelaya is not just against the military, but also the congress (minus some minority representatives) and the rest of the “ruling class”, who control business and media, and to which he and his family belong.

Despite the rhetoric of heroism and patriotism from ideologues on either side, this is a relatively simple dispute between elites, who have characteristically sidelined peace and democracy in pursuit of their own interests.

The political crisis in Honduras last week was swiftly and thoroughly condemned by the US, the entire OAS, and the UN General Assembly. In Honduras, where the military’s involvement in politics led to well known and horrific human rights abuses in the 1980s, the removal of an elected president by military force calls to mind a painful history and cannot be tolerated.

In Costa Rica, where the ousted president Manuel Zelaya was originally exiled, President Oscar Arias was among the first to make this rather obvious point saying, “We thought that the long night of military dictatorships in Central America was over”. After years of legal and political struggle, the armed forces of Honduras were placed under civilian control just 10 years ago, in 1999, and the threat of a backslide is too great to ignore.

The international community has therefore offered the power of its support to Mr Zelaya, the democratically elected president of the country. Complicating the matter, however, is that Mr Zelaya has been an unpopular leader in Honduras and isn’t exactly the hard-done-by “man of the people” that he has lately presented himself to be.

As Mr Álvaro Vargas Llosa explains in his New York Times opinion piece:

A member of Honduras’s landed oligarchy, Mr. Zelaya came to power in 2006 as the leader of the Liberal Party, a center-right organization. He was a product of the establishment: an heir to the family fortune, he had devoted decades to his agriculture and forestry enterprises, supported the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and ran for president on a conservative platform, promising to be tough on crime and to cut the budget.

Around halfway into his term, however, Mr. Zelaya had an apparent ideological epiphany and became an admirer of Mr. Chávez. He signed a deal for a generous oil subsidy from Venezuela; last year he incorporated Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.

The first thing we can say, then, is that we are looking at a dispute between elites, in a country where poverty is rampant and the gap between rich and poor is jealously guarded with razor wire and heavily armed security guards.

According to a 2006 poverty assessment from the World Bank, the Honduran economy has been slowly growing since the end of the 1980s, but the new wealth is so completely absorbed by the wealthiest segment of the population that Real GDP per capita has remained virtually unchanged since 1989.

Given the desperate economic situation, the president’s “ideological epiphany” around 2006, when he began to accept social aid in the form of cheap fuel from Venezuela and rural medical assistance from Cuba could be interpreted as a practical political step towards improving the country – neo-liberal economics are not working, so why not try the Bolivarian Alternative?

Latin American dissatisfaction with dominant economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank is neither limited to Honduras, nor particularly surprising. The idea that there is some kind of good/evil distinction, with socialism and global capitalism on one side or the other, is pure ideological nonsense. For most people in Latin America, both are rather poor choices involving foreign manipulation and false promises of prosperity. In any case, Mr Zelaya is now caught between ideologies, and viewed with suspicion by left and right alike.

The Case Against Manuel Zelaya

It is clear that this is not a straightforward military coup; Mr Zelaya is not just against the military, but also the congress (minus some minority representatives) and the rest of the “ruling class”, who control business and media, and to which he and his family belong. This group is arguing that the president intended to violate the constitution by decreeing that a public opinion poll should be taken alongside the election in November, which he would later try to equate to a referendum through legal trickery, and which could (if supported by the people) lead to the formation of a “national constitutional assembly” to review certain sections of the constitution which cannot be changed by congress.   

The US Library of Congress describes this section of the Honduran constitution as follows:

Title VII, with two chapters, outlines the process of amending the constitution and sets forth the principle of constitutional inviolability. The constitution may be amended by the National Congress after a two-thirds vote of all its members in two consecutive regular annual sessions. However, several constitutional provisions may not be amended. These consist of the amendment process itself, as well as provisions covering the form of government, national territory, and several articles covering the presidency, including term of office and prohibition from reelection.

This has been simplified in several media sources as an attempt to stay in office past the election – but since he is prohibited from running for office again under current law, this complicated plan of his, even if widely supported, would not actually allow him to hold onto power in his current term. If this alleged plan of his worked (which is highly unlikely), the best it could do would be to allow him to run for president sometime in the future, or possibly, to extend the term in office for somebody else. And in any case, this could only be accomplished with the support of the majority (ie democratically).

This is not to say that congress was completely out of line in opposing the president’s attempt to poll the people, since it was probably a waste of money – but they certainly overreacted. If the legal case against Mr Zelaya is as strong as his opponents claim, it would have been much more sensible to impeach the president within Honduras, state their case openly, and provide the public and international media with accurate information.

“The Era of Pinochet”

Instead, congress violated Mr Zelaya’s constitutional rights by using the military to force him out of the country, presented a highly suspicious letter of resignation supposedly signed by the president (although he denies it), appointed the leader of congress, Mr Mecheletti, as the new, unelected president of the country, imposed a 48 hour curfew on the population, suppressed independent media, and interrupted/ “blacked out” international broadcasters including CNN. Speaking from Tegucigalpa on July 1st, in the midst of anti-coup protesters, Dr Juan Almendares characterized it as a return to the “era of Pinochet”.

This is what chess players and political commentators refer to as a bad move.

Their strategy is to present themselves to the Honduran people as a united and patriotic government, defending the constitution against the threat of communist dictatorship. Unfortunately for them – but fortunate for everyone else – information and communication technology has advanced to the point where it simply cannot be controlled by a regional power. (The government of Iran is also just learning about this).

A deposed Latin American president in his pyjamas, telling the world about how he was rudely awakened and forced from his home at gunpoint, is great TV. It is the kind of story that will earn journalistic awards, sell newspapers, and win over public sympathy. And when the now sympathetic international public hears that the same images are being repressed within Honduras, there is an even greater effort to open the lines of communication.

Hondurans living outside of the country, especially, have been using any means possible to reach their families, provide them with the latest international news, and clarify certain key points which are being misrepresented by the Honduran press.

For example, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador (the three nations bordering Honduras) recently reopened their borders after briefly imposing sanctions to protest Mr Mecheletti’s claim to the presidency – this is now being spun in the Honduran media as international acceptance of the new government. Similarly, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s comments reaffirming Mr Zelaya as the recognized president, but stopping short of calling the change of government a “coup”, have been grossly misrepresented as a vindication of the congress and the legality of the new government (since it’s not officially being called a “coup”).

More than anything else, this crude attempt to engineer public opinion in Honduras by limiting the flow of information and twisting what is clearly international condemnation into some semblance of approval is what will blacken this new government’s reputation and continue to isolate it internationally.

But there is another, even more chess-like reason that Mr Mecheletti and company have made a bad move here: they provided Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama with an excellent excuse to square-off against each other, and an excellent place to do it.  Mr Chavez is already talking about using his military to restore Mr Zelaya to power.

Of course, the US already has troops in Honduras, left over from when Honduras was ground zero for US-led counter-revolutionary actions in Central America, and has invested heavily in the Honduran military since then. During his campign for the presidency last year, Mr Obama criticized the Iraq war for drawing attention away from “America’s back yard” where Hugo Chavez has gained considerable power. This has largely been interpreted as a commitment to improve relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and to increase support for social programs, but I would be not want to test this assumption – after all, he said something similar about Afghanistan.    

Optimistically speaking, it is unlikely that we will see a return to the violence of the Cold War era in Latin America – the communist threat just isn’t what it used to be, and significant progress has been made. Still, General Romeo Vasquez, Mr Mecheletti, and their supporters in the political class have made a careless move for power and undermined what progress there has been towards peace and prosperity in Honduras over the past twenty years. Despite the government’s attempts to appear unified, opinions are deeply divided in the country and the region, and a clear path forward has yet to appear.

Ross Ryan is the editor of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.