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Both Sides Say : No Retreat

Reginald Thompson

Events in Honduras on the morning of June 28 divided hemispheric public opinion over the question of what constitutes a coup. For some observers, the military’s removal of President José Manuel Zelaya at the behest of the country’s congress and judiciary was classic in that it marked a return to the instability that plagued Latin American political institutions throughout much of the 20th century, especially during the 1980s. Others hailed the ousting of a president who had exhibited what some would describe as authoritarian tendencies, and defined it as marking Chavismo’s first setback in the Americas. With the end of the Cold War, Central American governments had reason to optimistically believe that threats to their constitutional government largely had been eliminated. Zelaya’s unceremonious displacement from the presidency shattered this notion by raising uncomfortable questions about the vitality of regional governments and the challenge to civilian supremacy, as well as the effects of external influences on Honduran politics.

The Honduran crisis exposed the profound shortcomings of the nation’s nascent democracy, particularly its inability to settle disputes between irreconcilable branches of government and key political sectors. In this instance, the opposition’s response to Zelaya’s proposed referendum, which would test whether public opinion favored convoking a constitutional assembly in November, had ballooned into an international confrontation. The country’s apparent inability to resolve this controversy within the country’s existing constitutional framework has been responsible for the present dilemma. The golpista provisional government drew condemnation from the Organization of American States, the United Nations General Assembly the Alianza Bolivariana para las America (ALBA), the EU, and a host of other entities. The event also was strongly denounced by the White House.

The path from the fourth ballot box’s emergence (to collect ballots from an advisory referendum) to the removal of the president involved a tense, multilayered progression. However, several incidents highlight how the prevailing political climate rendered traditional dialogue ineffective or even possible. The looming conflict was foreshadowed by the clash between Honduran attorney general Luis Rubi, and the president, which raised questions about the referendum’s constitutional validity. Following Zelaya’s insistence that the initiative would continue as planned, Rubi condemned the project on March 25, saying it did not fall under the president’s designated powers.

Nearly two months later, the Supreme Electoral Court declared the initiative invalid. In spite of these early warnings, the president’s project continued unabated. Opposition lawmakers feared that Zelaya would seek to modify the constitution’s eight core articles, which stipulate a one-term limit for presidents. By May, Zelaya’s continued promotion of the concept of a fourth ballot box that would validate convening a constitutional convention, pitted Nationalist party members, a majority of the congress and the army against him. Moreover, fellow members of Zelaya’s Partido Liberal—including the party’s current presidential candidate Elvin Santos—attacked the “fourth box” as a path to dictatorship.

Given this set of circumstances, a national political showdown was all but inevitable. Zelaya’s rhetoric and insistence upon altering the constitution, while reasonable when compared to what was featured in the U.S. and other Latin American countries, appeared to the Honduran elite as a determined stride toward the radical world of Hugo Chávez. In the minds of the country’s suspicious conservative political elite, such a shift would undermine the role of the traditional tightly controlled class make-up of the legislature and the courts, and would lead to a perilous consolidation of power in the executive.

The president’s public response to the Supreme Court’s allegations of improper conduct openly defied its legal findings. Zelaya’s speeches became marked by fiery rhetoric, but also contained legitimate legal arguments, such as his assertion that the constitution guarantees that a police officer could neither arrest him for carrying out the poll nor force him to physically leave the country. While he seems to have valid grounds to make such claims, it could be argued that his insistence on bypassing the two-thirds congressional vote needed to call for the referendum and his use of the National Statistics Institute rather than the Supreme Electoral Court to carry out the process displayed a certain amount of contempt for the other branches of government. This tense political environment rendered it all but impossible to negotiate a resolution to the legal controversy surrounding the referendum.

The recent conflict was further complicated by Honduras’ angrily contested entry into ALBA in August 2008. Hugo Chávez’s close political ties to Zelaya—a relationship borne out when he and other ALBA leaders visited Tegucigalpa—became a source of concern for the more conservative sectors of Honduran society. Venezuela’s increasing involvement in Honduras, extending from subsidized oil shipments and farm equipment to political advisors, raised concerns among the opposition as to what changes a constitutional assembly would impose on Honduras. His bitter political opponents, like the current interim president Roberto Micheletti, suggested that Zelaya would insist on emulating Hugo Chávez, who, in fact, has extended his political mandate through a series of bonafide constitutionally-based referendums and constitutional amendments.

The most decisive sequence of events in the crisis came when Zelaya sacked General Romeo Vasquez for his unwillingness to allow army troops to guard the ballot boxes for the June 28 proceedings. This dismissal, coupled with Zelaya’s recovery of confiscated election materials from the Hernán Acosta Mejia Air Force base on June 25, provoked the fury of the Honduran congress and military. Faced with Zelaya’s direct action in defense of his initiative, as well as his strategy of beginning to mobilize supporters in response to the opposition’s tactics, the anti-Zelaya cadres perceived their options to be quite limited. This was the moment that the legislators and senior military commanders began to formulate plans for the President’s removal.

Lessons Taught by Honduras

The present situation in Honduras is crucial to future Central American political development because it has managed to draw both national and regional actors into a strategic political conflict in a small, relatively unimportant nation. Chávez has repeatedly expressed his support for Zelaya and insisted that the ousted leader again assume control of the nation. Faced with this de facto situation, the United States must weave a path between condemning what has become globally regarded as an interruption of the democratic process and providing a purgative to rid the nation of the toxic influence of Venezuela and in the case of the interim government, the democratic party and the Clinton administration’s politics operating by Washington’s hired gin, Lanny Davis. Washington’s past use of Honduras as a staging area for covert operations against Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s reflects poorly on its dishonorable political record. Due to the already negative connotations of Washington’s past interventions in the region, U.S. policymakers will not allow themselves to explicitly condone the interim government’s action, although they have come close to doing so.

As negotiations between representatives of the interim government and the ousted president continue, a speedy resolution to the nation’s problems seems elusive, but essential. The crisis has united political opinion throughout Latin America and is pitting the ALBA nations, as well as the rest of the region firmly against the interim Honduran government. Zelaya enjoys the total commitment of Chávez and other ALBA leaders. They have sworn to continue aiding him in his quest to return to the presidency, and Chávez has repeatedly defended Zelaya on Venezuelan television and lambasted the two rounds of talks in Costa Rica as an attempt to legitimize Micheletti’s rump government. With no concrete solutions available, Honduras may face a prolonged delay before stability can be reestablished. Indeed, even if Zelaya is restored to power—a serious possibility given the opposition’s weak bargaining position—he will inevitably return as a weakened political figure.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Reginald Thompson
July 22nd, 2009

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.