Given President Obama’s known admiration for Abraham Lincoln, it is unfortunate that he has joined Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro in denouncing last month’s change of government in Honduras as an illegal “coup.” After the president’s unruffled response to the bloody Iranian election crisis, one might have expected him to take a more muted approach to Honduras. Instead, Obama rushed to condemn a “coup” in which the Honduran congress and supreme court, with widespread support from the Honduran public, replaced Manuel Zelaya, a president determined to seize autocratic power in the Chavista mold, with an interim civilian government led by an elected member from Zelaya’s own party. President Obama’s decision to oppose Honduras’s interim government and to demand Zelaya’s reinstatement shows that it is the Hondurans, and not our own president, who understand the lessons of Lincoln’s presidency.
Lincoln understood that in extraordinary times it may be necessary even to break some laws in order to preserve the rule of law as a whole. At the onset of the Civil War, Maryland teetered on the edge of secession. While violent mobs in Baltimore attacked Union soldiers travelling to defend Washington, D.C., from the Confederates, Maryland’s elected state government appeared poised to join the Confederacy. In response, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus from Washington to Philadelphia. He placed Maryland under martial law and forcibly prevented it from seceding. When the Supreme Court ruled Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional on the grounds that only Congress may suspend habeas corpus, Lincoln simply ignored the ruling and famously asked, “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?” President Lincoln deliberately violated the Constitution in order to save it. Had Maryland seceded, the Confederacy would have had a stranglehold on Washington, D.C., and might have won the war.
The Honduran “coup” was a similar response to an extraordinary threat to the rule of law. Limited to one term of office under his country’s constitution, President Zelaya ordered the military to defy both the congress and the supreme court and to stage — by force if necessary — an “advisory” referendum on removing term limits. The evident goal was to enable Zelaya’s indefinite rule, using tactics taken straight from the playbook of his friend and patron, Hugo Chávez. In fact, so keen was Chávez to see Honduras fall into his “Bolivarian” orbit that he showered Zelaya with subsidies and even had the ballots for the referendum printed in Venezuela after the Honduran supreme court ruled that any such referendum would be illegal.
Zelaya’s plan was nothing less than an attempt to overthrow the Honduran constitution. Reflecting Honduras’s turbulent political history, articles 4 and 374 of its constitution declare presidential term limits to be inviolable and define any attempt to modify them or to serve more than one term as president as “treason against the homeland.” When the Honduran armed forces refused to carry out what would have been a blatantly illegal order, Zelaya sacked their commander, an action the supreme court then overruled. Undeterred, Zelaya organized a group of supporters to seize the ballots from where they had been impounded in order to proceed with the referendum. Shortly afterwards, on June 28, soldiers acting on the order of the Honduran congress and supreme court forced Zelaya aboard a plane to Costa Rica. Despite Chávez’s threats to invade Honduras in order to restore his protégé to power, Zelaya’s removal continues to enjoy wide popular support. It is change Hondurans can believe in.
Oddly, Honduras’s constitution contains no mechanism for impeachment of a sitting president. Critics have seized on this point to argue that Honduras’s action therefore amounts to an illegal coup. Yet, while Honduras’s constitution does not explicitly provide the means for removing Zelaya, it provides every legal justification for doing so, as articles 4 and 374 indicate. Interestingly, the absence of a codified impeachment process arguably makes last month’s “coup” more legal than Lincoln’s actions to save Maryland for the Union. While Lincoln defied an explicit constitutional provision, Honduras’s congress and supreme court simply filled in the blanks.
Nevertheless, critics miss the larger point: Zelaya sought to overthrow his country’s budding constitutional democracy and add Honduras to Latin America’s lengthening list of Venezuelan-style dictatorships. He has so far failed only because the military refused to support him. With Zelaya now calling for insurrection against the new government, Hondurans need only look to the extinction of political freedom and mounting chaos in Venezuela to know what is at stake. To characterize Zelaya’s removal as “illegal” is like blaming firefighters for causing water damage to a burning house.
Abraham Lincoln would have empathized. Lincoln and Honduras both took extraordinary actions in response to extraordinary threats to the rule of law. Without President Lincoln’s arguably “illegal” action, the United States as we know it would quite likely have ceased to exist. Had the Honduran military sided with Zelaya’s ambitions instead of their congress and supreme court, their country would have quickly become yet another dictatorship in thrall to Caracas and Havana. Rather than denounce Honduras’s fledgling democracy in an effort to win over Hugo Chávez, President Obama would do well to study the president whose legacy he so loudly claims.
– Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky practices international law at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. Matthew Raymer is a member of the California bar.