The political showdown in Honduras is about far more than the future of a tiny, strategically insignificant country nestled between the Caribbean and the Pacific. It is about setting a precedent that authoritarian maneuvers of the Hugo Chávez variety will not be tolerated by modern Latin American democracies.
Chávez wants deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya restored to his former office. Zelaya warns that if he is not returned to power, “other measures will be taken.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration badly bungled its initial response to Zelaya’s ouster, which was necessary to uphold Honduras’s constitutional order. The administration is now supporting diplomatic negotiations brokered by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, who seems eager to burnish his reputation as a peacemaker. These talks currently are on hold, and Zelaya is calling for an “insurrection.” The potential for bloodshed is real, especially if Zelaya keeps fanning the flames.
Last weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned the interim Honduran leader, Roberto Micheletti, and urged him to reinstall Zelaya as president. According to a Foggy Bottom spokesman, Clinton warned Micheletti that the U.S. might suspend aid to Honduras unless its demands are met. If only Clinton and Obama were as tough on Tehran.
The administration seems to believe that Zelaya’s removal from the Honduran presidency was illegal. It wasn’t. Zelaya had proposed holding a national referendum on whether to establish a “constituent assembly” that would draft a new constitution. As Washington lawyer (and Honduras native) Miguel Estrada wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, “the only conceivable motive for such a convention would be to amend the un-amendable parts of the existing constitution.” One of those un-amendable planks limits Honduran presidents to a single four-year term in office; another spells out the rules for presidential succession. It was clear that Zelaya, whose term was due to end in January, wanted to change these requirements and seek reelection. Hence the referendum.
There were two problems. First, such a referendum must be approved by a supermajority of the Honduran Congress. In this case, the Congress had rejected Zelaya’s idea. Second, the Honduran constitution is extremely strict when it comes to presidential term limits and succession. “Article 239 specifically states that any president who so much as proposes the permissibility of reelection ‘shall cease forthwith’ in his duties,” notes Estrada, “and Article 4 provides that any ‘infraction’ of the succession rules constitutes treason.”
When the Honduran supreme court affirmed that Zelaya’s referendum was illegal, the president defied its ruling and went ahead with plans to stage the vote. Honduran military chief Romeo Vásquez refused to cooperate with Zelaya’s scheme, and was fired. Zelaya and his followers then ransacked a military post and seized the ballots (which had been provided by Venezuela). The supreme court had no choice but to authorize the president’s arrest. As Judge José Tomás Arita explained in his order to General Vásquez, Zelaya was charged with “acting against the established form of government, treason against the country, abuse of authority, and usurpation of power.” Afterwards, the Honduran Congress voted nearly unanimously to approve Zelaya’s ouster and appoint Micheletti as interim president.
It should be obvious that Zelaya — who tried to hijack his country’s democracy, and who is now trying to incite a rebellion — has irrevocably forfeited his legitimacy. Honduran officials will not allow him to resume the presidency, nor should they. As a compromise, Micheletti has offered to hold early national elections (which are currently scheduled for November) and give Zelaya a conditional amnesty. But CNN reports that the Honduran supreme court has “rejected the amnesty provision” and wants Zelaya to be tried in court for his crimes against the constitution.
The final outcome in Honduras remains uncertain. But Zelaya is clearly unfit for office, and the Obama administration should stop pretending otherwise.