It is perhaps predictable that the unrest in Honduras is being seized upon by the usual suspects in an attempt to exploit the situation to draw conclusions that are completely unwarranted by what is taking place. Neocons are hailing the removal of a "leftist" president while liberals are shouting "coup." In an attempt to determine what Hondurans think, I have recently had the opportunity to speak to a number of military officers, students, civil servants, and businessmen. As many commentators have correctly noted, there is a sharp class divide in Honduras, with 70% of the population mired in poverty and a middle and upper class that is much better off and politically empowered to stay that way. The existence of extreme poverty with little hope for improvement in the majority of the population has been exploited by populists in Latin America through promises to bleed the rich and help the poor. Though the promises have rarely been kept, the ability to organize bloc voting by the poor has created a de facto monopoly of power for the leaders who have successfully sold themselves as being champions of the disenfranchised, leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
What is lacking in the media feeding frenzy is any deference to what the Hondurans themselves might want. Last month a crisis that had been building for nearly a year exploded. President Manuel Zelaya, a wealthy rancher elected as a center leftist in 2006 but turned populist after entering into office, proposed a non-binding referendum that would have supported amending the country’s constitution. Zelaya said that he was interested in changing the constitution to help the poor, though he did not propose any specific remedies. But according to most Hondurans, the particular part of the constitution that he was interested in obtaining a mandate for eventually amending was a non-amendable part that was designed to keep presidents like him from remaining in office beyond their constitutionally permitted terms. Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution reads in translation: "No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years." A number of Latin American countries have such clauses in their constitutions to avoid the establishment of presidents-for-life, which have resulted in continuous one party rule. The US Constitution also has several permanent articles.
Zelaya’s gambit and his blatant appeal to class interests had made him highly unpopular, with approval ratings in the twenties. His term of office ends next January and he cannot run again, but, noting the example of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela’s successful referendum to stay in office, he may have decided that the solution would be to amend the Honduran constitution. According to at least one account, the referendum ballot forms themselves were actually written and printed in Venezuela. I would admit that this description of intentions is somewhat conjectural, but both Zelaya’s friends and enemies pretty much agree that he was seeking a way to stay in office. Zelaya is an admirer of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Hugo Chavez, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Like those leaders, he has an adversarial relationship with the media, which he has attempted to muzzle. It has even been alleged that he has had critical journalists killed. By presidential decree he has already entered Honduras into Chavez’s ALBA, a trade and quasi-defense alliance that has been set up to counter the US-supported Free Trade Area of the Americas. Other members of ALBA are Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and several Caribbean Islands.
The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that the referendum was itself illegal due to the parts of the constitution that cannot be amended, most particularly Article 239. Zelaya insisted that he would proceed anyway, setting a polling date for Sunday June 28th. Ballot boxes in Honduras are placed in the custody of the army prior to putting them in the polling stations to prevent fraud, so Zelaya instructed the military commander in Chief General Romeo Vasquez to have the soldiers take control of the boxes for distribution. The General hesitated and acting under orders of the Supreme Court eventually refused to comply because the court had ruled that it was illegal. The country’s Attorney General also declared the referendum to be illegal and the Honduran Congress openly opposed holding the referendum. The country’s lawyers union and leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church also came out in opposition. Zelaya fired General Vasquez, which he is able to do under the constitution, at which point the heads of the three branches of the military services also resigned in protest. On the eve of the voting, Zelaya led a group of supporters to the international airport to seize the ballots and boxes that were being stored in an air force warehouse so that he and his associates would be able to distribute them on the next day.
Early next morning, a small group of soldiers disarmed the presidential bodyguard and, acting under the orders of the Supreme Court, Congress, and their own commanders, arrested Zelaya. He was flown to Costa Rica and replaced by the President of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, which is what the Honduran constitution has established as the chain of succession if the presidency becomes vacant and there is no vice president (currently the case in Honduras). Micheletti is a Liberal, the same party that Zelaya comes from, though he has a bad relationship with the president. Removing Zelaya from the country was clearly illegal, though his arrest was not. The alternative to the exile would have been a trial on the criminal charge arising from violation of Article 239 of the constitution, which would have divided Honduras, left the country without a head of state, resulted in a politically charged trial, and undoubtedly led to serious violence.
The international community and the US have lined up to demand that Zelaya be returned to office, but the Honduran government has refused. An attempt by Zelaya to return to Honduras on Sunday was thwarted when the new government blocked the airport runway. One man died when Zelaya’s supporters stormed the airport in a bid to force the authorities to permit the plane to land. There is no evidence that the United States government was involved in the removal of Zelaya and there is likewise no evidence to suggest that this was a military coup with generals now calling the shots for what is ostensibly civilian government. Most Hondurans I spoke to would agree that the military, while still important, no longer plays a dominant role in the country’s politics. Most supported the removal of Zelaya, convinced that he was seeking to make himself president for life.
I think I have told the story fairly and accurately and the point I am trying to make is that there is no clear good and bad in what happened in Honduras. The country’s president Manuel Zelaya attempted to do something to make Honduran politics more inclusive of the poor. It might have been a sincere attempt to make the constitution more democratic after the Chavez model in Venezuela and Evo Morales model in Bolivia, which for all their flaws, undeniably empowered the poor majorities. Whether that has been unambiguously good for those two countries is far from clear, but there is no doubt that many previously disenfranchised people became voters. Looking at it from another perspective, however, Zelaya’s actions might have been little more than an attempt to stay in office. Other parts of the government decided that what was proposed was illegal and had good grounds to do so, so they took action. While conceding that soldiers were involved, it might not have amounted to a military coup because, by all accounts, the army did not take the lead on removing Zelaya. The civilian government was not replaced by officers, there were no executions or imprisonments, and the new government was set up as called for by the constitution. The property of United States citizens and companies has not been confiscated, there have been no threats against foreigners, and the rule of law continues to prevail on the streets even though a curfew is in place, the airport was militarized when Zelaya attempted to return, and there was some censorship.
What happened and continues to happen in Honduras is therefore a confusing internal political matter that can be interpreted in several ways. It is the type of situation that cannot be and will not be well understood by outsiders. In short, it is a Honduran problem that cries out to be left alone. It is not the business of the United States, its president, and secretary of state. Those in Washington who choose to be sanctimonious about events in Tegucigalpa should perhaps recall that a US president was impeached not so long ago for perjury, a charge perhaps less serious than intending to overturn a country’s constitution. Nor is the situation in Honduras the business of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and Fidel Castro. As in the recent Iranian election, which produced considerably more violence, outsiders have no way to know for sure what occurred and, lacking that certainty, they can only do more harm than good by entering into some kind of irrelevant debate. President Obama and Hillary Clinton have already yielded to their politically correct impulses and demanded that Manuel Zelaya should be returned to office, but now it would perhaps be a good time for them to shut up. Intervening in someone else’s politics is a recipe for disaster. Far better just to leave it alone and let the Hondurans sort it out.