Posted by Jack @ 8:43 pm on June 29th 2009

Understanding the Honduran Coup, or “not coup” if you prefer.

The task is made particularly difficult by two factors:

1. The tendency of bloggers and opinion journalists to take rather predictable positions based on their position on the ideological spectrum and having little to do with the facts of the situation, and do so while grossly exaggerating, minimizing, or distorting the other side, as needed. In other words: situation normal. Right bloggers are cheering on the rational defense of Honduras’ constitution via legal and restrained actions of the combined military/ legislature/ judiciary against a President flaunting the law and intent on establishing a Chavista-style semi-dictatorship under the guise of people’s referendums. The Left views this as an outright military coup supported by the Right, corrupt business interests, and a compliant judiciary that acted in an obviously illegal manner reminiscent of Latin America’s long history of military coordinated coups.
2. The complexity of the institutional challenge faced by the Honduran government prior to the actual coup, and the MSM’s horrifically poor coverage of it in favor of wall to wall Michael Jackson stories, with side helpings of Billy Mays news.

First, a few very brief contextual points:

– The Honduran constitution, a 1980s construct, takes as an important design point the prevention of an overly strong president via separation of powers and what not.
– The constitution, like many Latin American (and other) constitutions, specifically assigns the military with a task of protecting the constitutional order. This inclusion, common though it is, has long been the source of great debate, with the military usually seeking an interpretation that provides them wide authority in deciding what is a threat, and what they can do about it, as opposed to those preferring strong civilian control over the military at all times. Though Latin America has a long history of military strong men and army backed coups, these days that is the exception: there has been a major historical backlash, and many of the militaries exist as redheaded step children, without much influence in the public sphere
– It is typical in Honduras and through much of the LATAM for the military to be involved with elections and referendums as the polling station securing agency. This is in line with a lack of Posse Comitatus equivalent, and a much larger domestic role for the military in general.
– President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya is a polarizing figure who leans decidedly towards the leftist wing of Latin American politics dominated by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, but is generally considered saner and less extremist. He has aligned Honduras with ALBA, “Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America, an international cooperation organization consisting of the most leftist leaders in the hemisphere. The Bolivarian in the title is a reference to Simon Bolivar, the revered father of South American independence, and the figure most likely to be invoked by a wide variety of politicians, although Hugo Chavez has so co-opted the name and image of “The Liberator” that other may be loath to do so because of the baggage it now carries. Back to the story: Zelaya a populist with wide support among the poor and labor unions, and extensive opposition from the middle and upper classes, business organizations, much of the media, the legislature including much of his own party, and the judiciary.

A timeline: Which I derived primarily from Bloggings by Boz posts and links. Part One Two Three

Leading up to late June: President Zelaya has proposed a June 28 national non-binding referendum ostensibly to determine the population’s support for including a binding referendum on the November 2009 ballot that would call for a National Constitutional Assembly. Zelaya portrays this as merely checking the pulse of his population, and the constitutional assembly would be merely adjusting the constitution to bring this archaic 1980’s document into the 21st century. The opposition portrays this as a transparent and illegal move to hijack a defined process for constitutional amendment which he will then use to force significant constitutional revisions that centralize power in the executive, and allow him to run for President again (his one permitted term expires early 2010). The Honduran constitution assigns this role (calling for a national assembly) to the legislature, and the June referendum, though not actually calling for the assembly, seems like a sneaky and questionably legal tactic to end run this role. Some key personnel and groups agree: The Attorney General, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and the Supreme Court see it this way, with the latter ruling the event illegal.

June 23: The legislature, not wanting there to be any doubt, and faced with the President’’s stated intention of conducting the referendum anyway, attempts to close the matter during a late night session in which they pass a law specifically restricting the President’’s right to conduct a referendum within 180 days of a national election (scheduled for November).

June 24: Faced with both the Supreme Court’s ruling and the legislative law, the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vasquez refuses the President’s order to assist with the referendum. Keep in mind that the ballots are stored at military bases, and this is considered normal in LATAM. A different culture indeed. The President fires the general. The minister of defense resigns.

June 25: The legislature and Attorney General and Supreme Court demand (“order”) that the president reinstate General Vasquez, and the AG begins impeachment proceedings against the President. This will become a crucial point, as my sources tell me that Honduras eliminated impeachment as an option for removing the President a few years back, and only direct criminal conviction can remove him. Take this last bit as tentative. It gets worse. Boz:

Then, in one of the more dramatic moments of Latin America politics I’ve seen in recent years, President Zelaya physically traveled to an Air Force base with trucks filled with supporters. The military had been ordered by the Congress earlier in the day to seize materials for the election and not allow the president to have them. Zelaya personally entered the base, the soldiers and airmen there stood down, and the president had his supporters load up their trucks with the election materials.

The Congress will now “investigate” the events of the past few days. The hints are that they may attempt to impeach the president.

On one side, President Zelaya and his supporters claim they face a coup attempt (Telesur even has a special “Golpe de Estado Honduras” section on their website). On the other side, Zelaya’s opponents, which include some of his own party members, say the president is attempting an “auto-golpe” in which he overthrows his own government’s institutions to take greater control. As I said, what we’re watching in Honduras is the definition of an institutional crisis.

So, the President will conduct the referendum regardless of legislative acts or court rulings. It is this series of willfully illegal acts upon which the military rests its justification for the following actions, and (more importantly!) that the right blogosphere concludes that these acts are appropriate.

June 28: Sunday, in the early morning hours, one hour before the polls are scheduled to open, soldiers force entry to the President’’s residence, arrest Zelaya, escort him (in pajamas!) to an airbase, put him on a plane, and fly him to Costa Rica. Through the rest of the day, Zelaya describes the event as an armed kidnapping, Hugo Chavez bloviates about acts of war and threats to use his military, the vast majority of the Organization of American States, including the US and Colombia (a decidedly right leaning administration), condemn the coup, and the Honduras legislature claims to have a letter of resignation from the President. The head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, is appointed interim President by the legislature, and he announces that he will hold elections in November.

And there you have it. My assessment: A series of illegal actions by an overreaching President results in another, more immediate, set of illegal actions by the legislature and the military. The left bloggers who castigate the latter tend to ignore or mimimize the former (and I can sympathize, if you don’t want to call for a constitutional assembly, vote no and convince others to do the same) while the right bloggers ignore the illegal nature of the military arrest and exile of the sitting president, while simultaneously castigating Obama and Hillary Clinton for siding with Chavez, Ortega, and Morales. Colombia’s Uribe and the entire OAS gets left off that list, somehow. As a friend put it: “I am offended that I am forced to side with and defend this idiot Zelaya, but in this case, I do.” I feel much the same way.


  1. The Wall Street Journal portrays it as a battle between the courts and the President in which the military enforced a court order. I’m not sure if shuffling the President off to Costa Rica constitutes a standard arrest procedure as per the SCOH orders, but I’m no expert.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/29/2009 @ 10:39 pm

  2. I am having trouble finding a Honduran court order to exile the President from the country. I can envision “don’t conduct the referendum” or “General V is still in charge” or even “Do not allow the President to hike on the Appalachian Trail pending resolution of this matter”, but assaut the Presidential residence, arrest at gunpoint, and forcibly put him on a plane out of our jurisdiction?” Nahhh.

    Comment by Jack — 6/29/2009 @ 10:45 pm

  3. Well, the order was to arrest him if he attempted to carry out the unconstitutional referendum, apparently.

    As military coups go, this one’s a bit tricky. Where is the ultimate recourse when the person in charge of executing the laws chooses to ignore them?

    Comment by Rojas — 6/29/2009 @ 11:33 pm

  4. I stand with Rojas on this. Have the rest of you been assimilated into group think or something? Geez.

    Comment by James — 6/30/2009 @ 12:50 am

  5. Well, I think that Jack’s initial post recognized that the situation isn’t cut-and-dried.

    I’m glad you stand with me; I wish I knew exactly where the two of us were standing, because I really can’t quite figure out what to make of this one. The case for condemning the arrest certainly isn’t one of reflexive groupthink…and if our knee-jerk reaction is to react negatively to military arrests of popularly elected Presidents, well, I can think of worse reflexes to have.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/30/2009 @ 1:49 am

  6. Oh. And if you fear the assimilation of your co-bloggers into groupthink, you’re REALLY not going to like my response in your new Ron Paul thread.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/30/2009 @ 1:50 am

  7. As military coups go, this one’s a bit tricky. Where is the ultimate recourse when the person in charge of executing the laws chooses to ignore them?

    You bring it up as little as possible and help grant immunity to anyone who gave one assistance along the way.

    Some of life has to be mysterious, and sometimes you have to keep walking, you know.

    Comment by thimbles — 6/30/2009 @ 8:34 pm

  8. It is a statement of how fried my brain is (after a 2.5 hour condo associatin board meeting) that it took me ten minutes to figure out what the hell you were referring to, Thimbles. Plus, Pinot Noir was involved. Yeah thats right. I don’t have to drink Scotch every night, I can have a snooty red and still be a man.

    Comment by Jack — 6/30/2009 @ 11:03 pm

  9. I confuse, therefore I am.

    Comment by thimbles — 6/30/2009 @ 11:31 pm

  10. Yeah. You know what ISN’T a good way of proving that you’re acting on constitutional principle by arresting the President? When you also decide to shut down the opposition media.

    Looks like the Obama administration made the right call here. Me and Zelaya, sittin’ in a tree.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/2/2009 @ 7:58 pm

  11. PS. we got an interesting article here:

    Inestroza acknowledged that after 34 years in the military, he and many other longtime soldiers found Zelaya’s allegiance to Chávez difficult to stomach. Although he calls Zelaya a ”leftist of lies” for his bourgeoisie upbringing, he admits he’d have a hard time taking orders from a leftist.

    Memories of the 1980s fight against guerrilla insurgents are still fresh in Honduras.

    ”We fought the subversive movements here and we were the only country that did not have a fratricidal war like the others,” he said. “It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That’s impossible. I personally would have retired, because my thinking, my principles, would not have allowed me to participate in that.”

    34 years in the military, why that would mean he started in 1974. What was going on in the period from 1974 and through the eighties?

    Glad you asked:

    This is kind of important to set the full context.

    Comment by thimbles — 7/4/2009 @ 12:13 am

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