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Posted by on Jul 1, 2009 in Breaking News, International, Politics | 12 comments

About That Referendum in Honduras

What’s interesting is that Fausta (linked via Memeorandum) and Dr. Steven Taylor (of Poliblog) give us the exact wording of the ballot initiative, in Spanish — which in turn is exactly the wording that Hilzoy quoted in her post at Obsidian Wings — and all three provide an English translation that is almost exactly the same (Hilzoy translates “ballot box” as “urn” but says she thinks that “ballot box” is the meaning). Yet, Hilzoy and Dr. Taylor interpret the text of the referendum quite differently than  Fausta does.

Here is the text of the initiative, in Spanish, with the English translation below:

¿Está de acuerdo que en las elecciones generales de 2009 se instale una cuarta urna en la cual el pueblo decida la convocatoria a una asamblea nacional constituyente? = Sí…….ó………..No.

Do you agree with the installation of a fourth ballot box during the 2009 general elections so that the people can decide on the calling of a national constituent assembly? Yes or no.

I took that from Dr. Taylor’s blog, but you can see that the translation is essentially the same at the two other blogs.

Here is Dr. Taylor’s take on the referendum’s wording (emphasis at the end is mine):

In other words: do you want there to be a ballot and a ballot box (Latin American elections often have one ballot per office and one ballot box per ballot) for the purpose of a referendum in November (alongside the presidential and congressional elections) to decide whether or not to call a constituent assembly to reform the constitution.


This is important for a variety of reasons.

1. This language was not about re-election.

2. Even if the plebiscite was allowed to go forward, the answer was “yes,” and the results were allowed to stand, Zelaya would not have been in a position to be re-elected in November.

This point is rather important, as it undercuts the argument of those in the US who support the coup (or whatever they want to call it) because Zelaya was “trying to pull a Chavez” i.e., the whole thing was about staying in power past his current constitutionally mandated term). Perhaps he was trying to extend his personal power, but not by directly using the plebiscite to extend his term. It may well be that the ultimate goal for Zelaya was personal power, but this is a more circuitous route than many are suggesting.

3. The fact that the president was initiating the process appears to be a clear violation of the constitution. Article 5 dictates that referenda are governed by a legislative process. Although I will note, there are a number of articles of the constitution that have been reformed via decree, the procedure for such actions is not clear to me at the moment (if you go here and search on “Decreto” you will see what I mean).2

As such, I continue to understand that there were grounds for legal action to be taken against Zelaya. However, I also continue to see no legal justification for the actual actions taken.

It’s hard to find fault with this reasoning. Taylor is clearly taking a nuanced, thoughtful position that is neither ideologically right or left.

By contrast, here is what Fausta had to say about the referendum (linked from Memeorandum; emphasis is in original):

This is in direct violation of the country’s Constitution, which forbids the President from calling for changes to the Constitution. Articles 373 and 374 of the Honduran Constitution specifically state that ammendments [sic] to the Constitution be approved by 2/3 of the votes in Congress AND specifically forbid any President of the country from extending term limits. The Constitution also says these two articles can not be ammended [sic].

The same article at La Prensa states that Zelaya prepared a decree ordering all institutions of the State to bring about the project, which Zelaya deemed “an official activity of the Government of the Republic”. This means that the notion that Zelaya’s referendum was non-biding [sic] is false. Zelaya clearly meant to make his Sunday referendum official and binding. La Prensa says the decree, dated June 26, was published Saturday June 27.

Many reports in the media make it sound like Zelaya came up with this project with short notice, and was removed with even shorter notice. La Prensa has a lengthy article (in Spanish) itemizing the timeline of Zelaya’s process of trying to bring about the Sunday referendum. Mel Zelaya first brought up “the fourth ballot box” idea on February 17th this year during a parade showcasing several tractors gifted by Hugo Chávez, two days after Chávez’s own referendum extending indefinitely his term in Venezuela.

I understand that the Honduran Constitution does not allow the president to be re-elected, that the Constitution says that this provision cannot be amended (weird though that sounds) and that in calling for a referendum, binding or not (and I don’t understand the basis for Fausta’s insistence that the referendum was not non-binding), Zelaya overreached his authority, because only the Honduran Congress can call for a constitutional assembly. What I do not understand is Fausta’s hysteria over a power grab that certainly is no more egregious than any of the Bush administration’s power grabs. Why does she feel that deposing Zelaya by military force and exiling him from the country is an appropriate — much less constitutional — response to some heavy-handed political overreaching by the president? The extremity of that response does not seem to me to be at all proportional to Zelaya’s actions.

Now contrast Fausta’s response to that of Hilzoy — who acknowledges she has no expertise on Honduran politics, but she still manages to ask intelligent questions that deserve answers:

Apparently, the Supreme Court ruled that this referendum is unconstitutional, either because the President does not have the right to call referenda, or because “the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.” (Though why the latter would mean that the referendum is illegal, and not just that the proposed Assembly could not legally change those parts of the Constitution, is a mystery.)


For my part, I am puzzled. (Seriously: I know nothing about Honduras.) If holding an Assembly to revise the Constitution is such a bad idea, why not just vote no on the referendum? If the people would, in fact, like to have such an Assembly, why not have one? What, in short, is so scary about a referendum that simply asks whether people would like to have an Assembly that might revise the Constitution in as yet unspecified ways? And even if there’s some reason for thinking that it is scary, is this (seemingly) mild, non-binding referendum anywhere near threatening enough to hold a coup over?

I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to that question.

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  • Workhorse

    Bush did not seek to modify the constitution via illegal means. For example, in the USA we can not modify the constitution by having a national vote. They can not do that in Honduras either. If Bush forced a national vote for modifying the constitution it would have been illegal, and grounds for immediate impeachment. Your arguments above are without substance or basis in any factual manner.

    • bobinsantamonica

      So, impeach. We didn’t send the army to take Nixon to the airport. A coup is a coup

      • Workhorse

        The Honduran government followed THEIR laws, with their court ordering the arrest and removal of their president, and giving those instructions to the military. It was a legal removal.

  • I have a good friend in the tourism sector in Honduras. This “coup” or whatever, has trashed one of the country’s only growth sectors. It’s dead for now, and for probably months to come, at least. Years if the military doesn’t put the damn tanks and tear gas away. Regardless of what American politicos think of the need for this, or the way it was done, it’s financial ramifications for the entire country are devastating.

  • shannonlee

    Liberals need to get over their Bush fixation. They would be smart to stop attacking Bush by dragging his name into every discussion regardless to whether or not it makes any logical sense.

    Liberals should be attacking the Reps that are still in office for their blind support of Bush.

    This addiction of attacking Bush is starting to become anti-productive.

  • jobo4220

    Some important points here about the issues of legality:

    The legalistic arguments being pushed by the pro-coupsters are empty, self-serving lies. They tend to rely on their own speculations to justify themselves with circular reasoning. It was a referendum to extend his term because that’s what they speculate it would be used for eventually, you see. And you can’t understand Fausta’s insistence that it wasn’t non-binding because the basis for that insistence is Fausta speculating that Zelaya would have somehow made it so after the fact, which would then be illegal, and therefore justifies the coup.

    The question is merely asking the public if it agrees with the idea of doing such an assembly. There is no credible reason why this is illegal, not clearly so anyway. One side was interested in hearing the public’s answer. The other side was absolutely determined that nobody ever hear that answer. We can believe the claims of the coup about why this is: that asking the public what it thinks about a public policy proposal is somehow anti-democratic tyranny that has to be stopped by all means necessary. Or, less absurdly, we can infer that the answer wasn’t going to go the way the coup wanted, so they chose to preemptively silence the answer, and what we’re hearing are the excuses they’ve cobbled together.

    Most importantly, if the response to this question went in Zelaya’s favor (as seems almost certain given the lengths taken to prevent anyone hearing the answer by his opponents), the most that would happen would be that it would be proposed that a binding version of the question be put into the ballot for the upcoming election, with the non-binding answer offered as public support for that proposal. If this went through then the question would go onto the ballot. This would mean that even if everything went Zelaya’s way, by the time this could be voted on Honduras would already be electing a new president at the very same time. You wouldn’t have an outcome to that question, let alone any assembly convened or anything changed, until Honduras already had a new president-elect. How can Zelaya extend his term by putting a question about a constitutional assembly on the ballot alongside who to elect as his replacement? Thus, you can see the emptiness of the claims that this was a personal power grab to extend Zelaya’s term. It makes no sense, unless you accept some improbable and illogical chain of events the pro-coupsters choose to speculate would take place in the future.

    The fact of the matter is that Honduras has an entrenched and corrupt establishment of wealthy interests that is accustomed to running things as they see fit without much interference from public opinion. And they have a highly undemocratic constitution, written in 1982 while Honduras was a US military base largely ruled by John Negroponte and the Reaganites, whose provisions are designed to insulate those entrenched interests against the possibility of democratic change. The possibility of rewriting the constitution would risk the outcome being a more democratic constitution that might reduce their unjust power. Therefore, those interests used a military coup to prevent this possibility and now concoct ridiculous scenarios to make Zelaya into some kind of bogeyman and throw around fake legalistic lies (and the word “Chavez” as much as possible) to blind people to what’s actually going on.

  • lurxst

    Distilling the reports down it seems that President Zelaya was calling for a “constitutional convention” which may or may not have been used to consider his alleged amendment to remove term limits. If indeed the act of simply calling for such a convention is illegal, than the country’s superme court and legislature acted appropriately in removing him from office. I agree it seems strange that simply talking about something as grounds for removal/impeachment/coup but that is Latin America for you. They have had a lot of recent experience with tyrants and dictators, much more than the U.S.

    It was an old fantasy to see Bush and his cronies marched out of the White House at gun point for their egregious abuses of our constitution. Despite what some commenters may desire, I will never get over it and will keep reminding people how easily we can be duped by those in power.

  • jobo4220

    “If indeed the act of simply calling for such a convention is illegal, than the country’s superme court and legislature acted appropriately in removing him from office.”

    It’s not. That’s why they misrepresent it as a referendum to extend his term.

    “I agree it seems strange that simply talking about something as grounds for removal/impeachment/coup but that is Latin America for you.”

    Those three actions are not interchangeable ones that can be justified on the same grounds. That may have been Latin America for you in 1982, but the world has moved on for the better, even if much of the Honduran elite prefers the old ways.

  • DLS

    “Liberals need to get over their Bush fixation”

    A *** lot *** of contrition as well as overdue rehabilitation is in order. However, “most in need, least likely.”

  • DLS

    “forced a national vote for modifying the constitution it would have been illegal”

    The foregoing is something a liberal Democrat would almost exclusively would be imagined of doing here.

  • lurxst

    Still trying to understand the Honduras situation better. It appears that, despite low approval ratings, Zelaya was acting constitutionally, to the dismay of his opponents in the Honduran congress and apparently stratified Supreme Court.

  • bobinsantamonica

    Even coup apologist Miguel Astrada agrees:

    “True, Zelaya should not have been arbitrarily exiled from his homeland.
    That, however, does not mean he must be reinstalled as president of
    Honduras. It merely makes him an indicted private citizen with a
    meritorious immigration beef against his country. ”

    In short the legal order of the Supreme Court to arrest him was not followed. He was illegally deported. Denying hime the opportunity to be arrested and make his case before the court, by deporting him illegally and blocking the runway when he attempted to return is NOT a simple immigration case. It’s a coup.

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