Roughly a week after it suspended “non-emergency, non-immigrant” visa services at the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, the State Department has formally suspended non-humanitarian U.S. aid to Honduras. Furthermore, Foggy Bottom has made clear that it will not support the outcome of the upcoming Honduran elections (scheduled for November) unless the country’s recently deposed and exiled leader, Manuel Zelaya, is first reinstalled as president.
Let’s see if we understand this: In order to be considered “legitimate,” the Honduran elections must be overseen by a Hugo Chávez disciple who was ousted from the presidency for (as Honduran supreme court chairman José Tomás Arita wrote in the arrest order) “acting against the established form of government, treason against the country, abuse of authority, and usurpation of power.” The Obama administration has effectively turned Zelaya into a symbol of democracy. He is exactly the opposite.
To understand why Zelaya was sacked — and why his removal from office was perfectly legal — one must be familiar with the Honduran constitution. Shortly after Zelaya’s ouster, in an article the State Department must have ignored, former Honduran culture minister Octavio Sánchez observed that Zelaya had “triggered a constitutional provision that automatically removed him from office” (emphasis added). More specifically, when Zelaya tried to stage a national referendum aimed at launching a “constituent assembly” that would write a new constitution, his clear intent was to change the laws pertaining to presidential terms limits and succession, which cannot be amended under the current constitution. (Honduran presidents can serve for only a single four-year term, and Zelaya’s term was due to expire in January.) Through his actions and intentions, Zelaya violated the constitution and, according to its text, “immediately” forfeited his office.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada (a native Honduran) explained that “Article 239 specifically states that any president who so much as proposes the permissibility of reelection ‘shall cease forthwith’ in his duties, and Article 4 provides that any ‘infraction’ of the succession rules constitutes treason.” Even after the Honduran congress and supreme court had rejected his proposed referendum as illegal, Zelaya confiscated the referendum ballots and sought to proceed with the vote. Upon receiving an order from the high court, the Honduran army arrested him before the referendum could take place. “Under Article 272,” Estrada noted, the army “must enforce compliance with the constitution, particularly with respect to presidential succession.”
Zelaya’s constitutionally mandated successor was congressional leader Roberto Micheletti, who has been serving as the temporary Honduran president since late June. Micheletti recently declared his willingness to resign and support Zelaya’s return to the country — provided Zelaya does not seek to resume the presidency. Honduran authorities consider Zelaya unfit to be chief executive — federal lawmakers voted nearly unanimously to approve his ouster — and with good reason. Zelaya will be lucky if he avoids jail time. He has no legitimate claim to the presidency.
As for the Obama administration, its mistreatment of the interim Honduran government is an ongoing travesty. In removing Zelaya from office, Honduran officials took a legal, constitutionally authorized stand against Chávez-style authoritarianism. They deserve praise, not punishment.