LA Times op-ed: “non-coup” in Honduras

The Los Angeles Times runs an op-ed July 10 entitled “Honduras’ non-coup,” by Miguel A. Estrada, identified as a partner at the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a native of Honduras, and a member of the official US delegation to President Zelaya’s 2006 inauguration. The kicker reads “Under the country’s Constitution, the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya was legal.” His argument is the same one we’ve heard over and over:

[T]he Honduran Constitution may be amended in any way except three. No amendment can ever change (1) the country’s borders, (2) the rules that limit a president to a single four-year term and (3) the requirement that presidential administrations must “succeed one another” in a “republican form of government.”

In addition, Article 239 specifically states that any president who so much as proposes the permissibility of reelection “shall cease forthwith” in his duties, and Article 4 provides that any “infraction” of the succession rules constitutes treason. The rules are so tight because these are terribly serious issues for Honduras, which lived under decades of military rule.

It’s ironic that Estrada invokes Honduras’ “decades of military rule” without mentioning that this very constitution was crafted by a military-dominated state in 1982, and these measures were aimed precisely at keeping elected civilian leaders subordinate to the generals. Accepting eternal prohibitions against constitutional amendments—or even advocating such—sets a very dangerous precedent. Estrada does so happily, offering the following version of the events leading to the “non-coup”:

Earlier this year, with only a few months left in his term, he ordered a referendum on whether a new constitutional convention should convene to write a wholly new constitution. Because the only conceivable motive for such a convention would be to amend the un-amendable parts of the existing constitution, it was easy to conclude—as virtually everyone in Honduras did—that this was nothing but a backdoor effort to change the rules governing presidential succession. Not unlike what Zelaya’s close ally, Hugo Chavez, had done in Venezuela.

Actually, given that the binding vote establishing the constitutional convention (following the non-binding one scheduled for June 28, to establish a popular mandate for the referendum) was to take place in November, simultaneous with the presidential election, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term through the constitutional reform—at best, to be able to run again in four years. And the issues Zelaya touted concerned beefing up the labor code and re-nationalizing the telecom system and power plants—not abolishing term limits. Estrada continues:

It is also worth noting that only referendums approved by a two-thirds vote of the Honduran Congress may be put to the voters. Far from approving Zelaya’s proposal, Congress voted that it was illegal.

The attorney general filed suit and secured a court order halting the referendum. Zelaya then announced that the voting would go forward just the same, but it would be called an “opinion survey.” The courts again ruled this illegal. Undeterred, Zelaya directed the head of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, to proceed with the “survey”—and “fired” him when he declined. The Supreme Court ruled the firing illegal and ordered Vasquez reinstated.

Zelaya had the ballots printed in Venezuela, but these were impounded by customs when they were brought back to Honduras. On June 25—three days before he was ousted—Zelaya personally gathered a group of “supporters” and led it to seize the ballots, restating his intent to conduct the “survey” on June 28. That was the breaking point for the attorney general, who immediately sought a warrant from the Supreme Court for Zelaya’s arrest on charges of treason, abuse of authority and other crimes. In response, the court ordered Zelaya’s arrest by the country’s army, which under Article 272 must enforce compliance with the Constitution, particularly with respect to presidential succession. The military executed the court’s order on the morning of the proposed survey.

Here—more than halfway through the piece—Estrada is finally forced to make a concession:

It would seem from this that Zelaya’s arrest by the military was legal, and rather well justified to boot. But, unfortunately, the tale did not end there. Rather than taking Zelaya to jail and then to court to face charges, the military shipped him off to Costa Rica. No one has yet explained persuasively why summarily sending Zelaya into exile in this manner was legal, and it most likely wasn’t.

This illegality may entitle Zelaya to return to Honduras. But does it require that he be returned to power?

No. As noted, Article 239 states clearly that one who behaves as Zelaya did in attempting to change presidential succession ceases immediately to be president. If there were any doubt on that score, the Congress removed it by convening immediately after Zelaya’s arrest, condemning his illegal conduct and overwhelmingly voting (122 to 6) to remove him from office.

Oops. The military circumvented the legal process by having the president summarily deported. Given this admission, why should any subsequent acts by the Honduran state be considered legitimate? If Zelaya had been arrested (and this also would have been of dubious legality), he would have had a chance to face his accusers in court, and put his case before the Honduran people. The congressional vote removing him would have had at least arguable validity. As it is, the democratic process has been abrogated entirely.

The political right throughout the hemisphere is assembling a barrage of legalistic sophistries in defense of the Honduran coup. If they prevail and the coup is allowed to become a fait accompli, it will be a grave step backwards for democracy in the Americas and worldwide—and all the more insidious because this time around (in contrast to the Cold War coups d’etat) it is being done under a veneer, however transparent, of propriety.

See our last post on Honduras.

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