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Posted by on Jun 29, 2009 in Breaking News, International, Media, Politics | 8 comments

Yes, It Is A Coup

There is quite a bit of Honduras coverage on Memeorandum right now. A roundup might be helpful in understanding what is happening there.

Elisabeth Malkin at the New York Times files a report from Mexico City, dated today (emphasis mine):

President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted by the army on Sunday, capping months of tensions over his efforts to lift presidential term limits.

In the first military coup in Central America since the end of the cold war, soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, early in the morning, disarming the presidential guard, waking Mr. Zelaya and putting him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Mr. Zelaya, a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, angrily denounced the coup as illegal. “I am the president of Honduras,” he insisted at the airport in San José, Costa Rica, still wearing his pajamas.

Later Sunday the Honduran Congress voted him out of office, replacing him with the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti.

The military offered no public explanation for its actions, but the Supreme Court issued a statement saying that the military had acted to defend the law against “those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

As another TMV contributor reported yesterday, the Facing South blog tells us that “At least two leaders of the coup launched in Honduras on June 28 were apparently trained at a controversial Department of Defense school based at Fort Benning, Georgia infamous for producing graduates linked to torture, death squads and other human rights abuses.”

The Wall Street Journal reports from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that tensions in the capital city are very high, with the military controlling the streets and some public services and news organizations shut down:

In Honduras, television stations were off the air, electricity was out in parts of the capital, and military jets streaked overhead, recalling Latin America’s long history of military coups and dictatorships.

Honduras’s Supreme Court gave the order for the military to detain the president, according to a former Supreme Court official who is in touch with the court.

Later, Honduras’s Congress formally removed Mr. Zelaya from the presidency and named congressional leader Roberto Micheletti as his successor until the end of Mr. Zelaya’s term in January. Mr. Micheletti and others said they were the defenders, not opponents, of democratic rule.

“What was done here was a democratic act,” Mr. Micheletti, who was sworn in as president Sunday afternoon, said to an ovation. “Our constitution continues to be valid, our democracy continues to live.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s editors certainly agree with that assessment. In an op-ed written by Mary Anastasia O’Grady, titled “Honduras Defends Its Democracy,” we learn that Pres. Zelaya was “sent packing” because he “acted as if he were above the law.”

… While Honduran law allows for a constitutional rewrite, the power to open that door does not lie with the president. A constituent assembly can only be called through a national referendum approved by its Congress.

But Mr. Zelaya declared the vote on his own and had Mr. Chávez ship him the necessary ballots from Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled his referendum unconstitutional, and it instructed the military not to carry out the logistics of the vote as it normally would do.

The top military commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, told the president that he would have to comply. Mr. Zelaya promptly fired him. The Supreme Court ordered him reinstated. Mr. Zelaya refused.

Calculating that some critical mass of Hondurans would take his side, the president decided he would run the referendum himself. So on Thursday he led a mob that broke into the military installation where the ballots from Venezuela were being stored and then had his supporters distribute them in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order.

The attorney general had already made clear that the referendum was illegal, and he further announced that he would prosecute anyone involved in carrying it out. Yesterday, Mr. Zelaya was arrested by the military and is now in exile in Costa Rica.

It remains to be seen what Mr. Zelaya’s next move will be. It’s not surprising that chavistas throughout the region are claiming that he was victim of a military coup. They want to hide the fact that the military was acting on a court order to defend the rule of law and the constitution, and that the Congress asserted itself for that purpose, too.

Even if all of this is accurate (and I have not been able to find the assertion that “on Thursday [Velaya] led a mob that broke into the military installation where the ballots were being stored and then had his supporters distribute them in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order” in any other news article, so far), this hardly seems like the appropriate way to handle the situation:

The events Sunday seemed to have come out of a past many thought long dead. Latin America suffered army takeovers for decades, into the ’60s and ’70s, but had since moved into an increasingly stable period of civilian democratic rule. In Honduras, the army overthrew elected presidents in 1963 and 1972 and held on to power until 1981.

“This coup is regrettable, not just for Honduran democracy but for Central America and the entire hemisphere,” said Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end conflict in the region. He spoke alongside Zelaya in a show of support.

“We thought Central American democracy had consolidated sufficiently to avoid this,” Arias said. “It is sad to see some civilians applaud a coup just because they disagree with policies. This has shown us that democratic institutions in Central America are still fragile . . . vulnerable.”

Bernard Chazelle points out, at A Tiny Revolution, that the referendum Velaya wanted would not have done anything like what its opponents (not to mention that NYT article I quoted from above) claim it would do:

The Times has an informative piece on Honduras.

From the byline alone, you know this is going to be good: Elizabeth Malkin, in Mexico City, with reporting by Simon Romero from Caracas. Which makes perfect sense since, as we all know, Mexico City and Caracas are the two major cities in Honduras. (Too bad they had no reporter in Bangkok. I hope the Pulitzer committee doesn’t notice.)

The Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army on Sunday after pressing ahead with plans for a referendum …

A referendum? OK, but for what?

… a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election

Ok, so we ask his opponents what the referendum is about. How about asking a more neutral observer? Like?

Mr. Zelaya pressed ahead with plans for a nonbinding referendum that opponents said would open the way for him to rewrite the constitution to run for re-election despite a one-term limit.

Yes, I think we got that point. Opponents of the referendum really don’t like that referendum. But what’s the referendum about? I’ll go out on a limb and, on the basis of what our crack reporters have told us, I’ll take a wild guess: “Can I, el Caudillo Zelaya, run for president again and again and again? Yes or no?”

Let’s check with Dr Wikipedia to see how well I’m doing:

Incumbent President Manuel Zelaya wanted to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to convene congress to modify the constitution.

Hmm… me very confused.

It’s non-binding, meaning that it has no enforcement power.

It’s not a referendum to change the constitution.

It’s a referendum to convene a constitutional assembly to modify the constitution.

Hilzoy was just as confused by the Times piece’s wording as Chazelle was:

I am puzzled by this. I found the Times’ description of the referendum unilluminating (“a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election” — what does that mean?) So I went off in search of the actual question, which seems to be this:

“¿Está usted de acuerdo que en las elecciones generales de noviembre de 2009 se instale una cuarta urna para decidir sobre la convocatoria a una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente que apruebe una nueva Constitución política?”

Unless my rusty Spanish misleads me, this means: “Do you agree that there should be a fourth urn (I’m guessing this means: ballot box) in the Nov. 2009 general elections to decide whether to convene the National Constituent Assembly to approve a new Constitution?”
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.)
Larisa Alexandrovna has a must-read piece at her blog, At-Largely, in which she responds to those who say that what happened in Honduras was simply a restoration of democracy, and not a coup:

I suppose it could be called impeachment when a Congressional body ousts a sitting president via force. But it is not as simple as that.

A group of people in a Congressional body join forces and pressure the rest of Congress  because those few have the backing of the military, which they then use to remove a sitting president from office and transport him to another country. That is the definition of a bloodless coup.

As noted here (in Spanish), the Honduran Congress cited repeated violations of the Honduran Constitution by President Manuel Zelaya and voted for his removal. That said, as I noted earlier, he is both a bad guy and a good guy. This is a complex political environment in a very unstable part of the world.

The right sees this as a simple restoration of democracy. Yet the use of military personnel to detain, arrest, and transport a sitting president to another country against his will is not part of any democratic process that I am aware of. They do have courts in Honduras and a legal system. This is a coup, despite the passions of the right-wing. They also have law enforcement. Anytime the military becomes involved, it is not as simple as impeachment by Congressional edict through military force. Shorter=coup.

Makes sense to me. I really can’t think of a reasonable argument for why this isn’t a coup.