Monday, June 29, 2009

Coup in Honduras: More Questions than Answers

"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there. It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections. The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions. ... We don't want to go back to a dark past." - President Barack Obama, June 28, 2009, reacting to the coup in Honduras.

My how times have changed. Three decades ago, coups in Latin America were the norm. Far from receiving condemnation from the United States, they typically received indifference--and more often than not outright praise, support, and instigation. Even seven years ago, when the Venezuelan military briefly removed President Hugo Chavez from power, the Bush administration quickly recognized Pedro Carmona's new administration (and may have been behind the move). The United States also quickly recognized the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.

So what has changed? The obvious is, of course, the U.S. administration. While the Bush administration followed old U.S. habits in tacitly--or not so tacitly--supporting the ouster of leaders with whom it disagreed, the Obama administration has thus far shown faith in elections. In the 1980s, the United States spent billions attempting to defeat the FMLN, a grouping of Salvadoran leftists that ranged from European-style social democrats to outright Marxist-Leninists. At one point, the Reagan administration pumped more money to the Salvadoran military in an average of three days than the United States currently spends on a year's worth of Peace Corps operations in that country (disclosure: I served briefly as a Peace Corps volunteer there in 2003). The FMLN, now a political party, won this year's presidential election. For Mauricio Funes' inauguration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wore the former guerillas' color, red. While I'm not someone a la Robin Givhan to comment on Clinton's clothing, that color choice is but a token of a new U.S. attitude toward elections in Latin America.

Considering the United States' record, on the face of it the Obama administration should be commended for labeling a coup a coup, and refusing to recognize the new presidency. Indeed, unlike so many times in the past, condemnation has been the norm.

But was it the right response in this case? Did the Obama administration follow the right path in joining, along with much of the rest of the international community, the condemnation of Honduras' coup?

Since I first began to follow the crisis on Thursday (thanks to a Facebook post by a friend, an ex-Honduras Peace Corps volunteer now married to a Honduran woman), the headline on the website of El Heraldo, a Honduran newspaper, simply read "Honduras against Illegality" (my translation). President Zelaya had repeatedly defied orders from the Supreme Court and Congress not to hold his referendum on Sunday. The military had stepped in only under orders from the Supreme Court to prevent the referendum from happening. Indeed, the military said that it had only deposed President Zelaya after receiving orders to do so from the Supreme Court. The Latin Americanist reports that Hondurans have overall reacted with relief to Zelaya's departure.

So is this coup legal? And perhaps more importantly, given Zelaya's contravention of the law, was it the right thing for the Honduran military to do? Did the Honduran military--with the connivance of the Congress and the Supreme Court--do the right thing by removing Zelaya?

My initial instinct is to say no. What raises my suspicion is the desire to quash Zelaya's referendum, which would have allowed for changing the constitution--likely to allow for further presidential terms, like other Latin American leaders have recently pushed for and received. Would the referendum--or opinion poll, as Zelaya called it--have resulted in a victory for the president? Going beyond the law for a moment (which I realize, particularly given Latin America's history, is a dangerous thing), why the fear of holding it? And if Zelaya had broken the law so flagrantly, why was the Congress unwilling or unable to remove him via impeachment? It had been considering firing him for moral ineptitude (like Peru's Congress did to Alberto Fujimori in 2000). Why did the military intervene, and the Congress wait until Zelaya had left/been forced out of the country? (Side note: at least Zelaya had it better than Aristide. Zelaya got to go to Costa Rica. Aristide went to... the Central African Republic.)

But that also raises the question of why Zelaya was so desperate to hold the referendum, even willing to break the law to do so. His term expires in January, and he has had three and a half years to hold such a referendum. I'm still unclear if he thought he could somehow run for a second term concurrently with a referendum in November on presidential reelection. Or why he was unwilling to sit out the next four years, hope one of his supporters (a la Dmitry Medvedev) was elected in November, and then return in four years--perhaps then with more time to amend the constitution. Why the rush? Or are former presidents unable to run again in Honduras? That said, one of his supporters could also amend the constitution to allow Zelaya to run again after he had left office.

Although I'm not exactly bummed to see Zelaya go after his actions, I think his opponents could have handled this in a much better way. Inka Kola News posts photos of the scene in Tegucigalpa today. Particularly given Latin America's history, whenever the military leaves the barracks and enters politics--even if to transfer power from one civilian authority to another--I have a hard time justifying it. Perhaps the military was the only force in the country that had both the authority and the power to remove Zelaya, even after a legal process.

But perhaps, as our president says, a coup sets a dangerous precedent. For all of Zelaya's flouting of the law, either other means should have been used, or his opponents should have let the clock run out on his term. Let's hope that this economic crisis does not follow its usual trajectory and bring another wave of coups in Latin America. The region has advanced too far for this to happen again.

Note: If anyone has any answers to the questions I ask above, or just general feedback, please please post in the comments. Relying on media reports and having only briefly visited the country for a few days in 2005, I want to know more of the nuance behind this story.


Welcome to my blog.

Who am I? I'm just a guy who lives outside of DC and has a variety of interests. So this blog will reflect that. Mainly, I'll write about history, about museums (I work in that field), urban planning/transit (particularly in the Washington area), and about Latin American politics. Sometimes I'll update frequently, and other times not much at all.

So without further ado, on to the first real post...