No Strongman for Honduras

Tomorrow will mark one month since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was roused from his bed by members of the military and escorted, in his pajamas, to a plane heading out of the country. Later that same day, June 28th, the Honduran congress elected Roberto Micheletti as interim president, with a term to expire on January 27th, 2010 — the date on which Zelaya’s term would otherwise have ended.

Since then, things have held in a state of tense limbo. No other country has recognized Micheletti as the legitimate president, and Zelaya is now camped out on the Honduras/Nicaragua boarder pushing for his return. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, a backer of Zelaya, has darkly threatened consequences if he thinks Venezuelans in Honduras might be threatened, but to date no outside power has attempted to force the Honduran military to stand down.

However, the situation is more complicated than a simple coup. This in depth article in the weekend’s WSJ on the lead up to Zelaya’s ouster is a pretty good primer on the subject. The military removed Zelaya in response to orders from the Honduran Supreme Court for the military to arrest Zelaya for disobeying the constitution. Zelaya was attempting to push through a ballot referendum to change the constitution — his primary object according to most Honduran authorities and observers being to remove the constitutional provision which limits each president to only one term in office. In this, he was following the example of other Latin American presidents who have sought to remove the constitutional provisions in their countries that were designed to keep one man from maintaining power indefinitely.

It’s the latest turn in a growing regional crisis that’s far more complicated than it appears. The episode may seem like a flashback to a tragicomic era of Latin American history when presidents were regularly overthrown in coups. That’s how the Obama administration has responded so far, voting with the Organization of American States to suspend Honduras and calling for Mr. Zelaya’s reinstatement.

But in fact, a close look at Mr. Zelaya’s time in office reveals a strongly antidemocratic streak. He placed himself in a growing cadre of elected Latin presidents who have tried to stay in power past their designated time to carry out a populist-leftist agenda. These leaders, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, have used the region’s historic poverty and inequality to gain support from the poor, but created deep divisions in their societies by concentrating power in their own hands and increasing government control over the economy, media and other sectors.

Mr. Zelaya, a 56-year-old former rancher and logger with a handlebar moustache, joined this group, which includes Mr. Chávez, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. This past week, Mr. Ortega laid out plans for a referendum to rewrite Nicaragua’s Constitution and allow him to be re-elected indefinitely, something Mr. Chávez has already achieved in oil-rich Venezuela.

It was such a move that led to trouble in neighboring Honduras. For the past year, Mr. Zelaya led a drive to rewrite the constitution to abolish term limits. On the day of his ouster, he was planning a referendum to call a constitutional assembly, even though the vote had been declared illegal by the country’s Supreme Court.

The crisis has put the Obama administration in a difficult spot. Mindful of past U.S. support of coups in Latin America, it condemned the ouster and has led efforts to find a negotiated solution. But its insistence Mr. Zelaya return to power has angered many middle-class Hondurans, who feel the ouster defended the country’s institutions from a Chávez-style power grab.

“This is a showdown which will determine if the Chavista model triumphs or not,” says Moises Starkman, who advised Mr. Zelaya on special projects and now works for the interim government in the same capacity.

Zelaya’s move towards strongman politics has concerned many former supporters, including leaders of the Church in Honduras.

No one was more disappointed with Mr. Zelaya than his former mentor, Honduras’ Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, a top candidate to replace the late Pope John Paul II at the time of the pontiff’s death. Cardinal Rodriguez blames Mr. Zelaya for using public money to promote his referendum instead of spending it on the poor. Earlier this year, cameras at Honduras’ Central Bank caught government officials withdrawing about $2 million from its vaults in a suitcase, presumably to fund Mr. Zelaya’s referendum drive. Three of Mr. Zelaya’s former top officials, and Mr. Zelaya himself, have been charged with misappropriating public funds in that case. The officials deny the charges and say they are politically motivated.

“We were good friends. But he changed drastically,” the Cardinal concludes. “It was Chávez. It was Chávez.”

However, despite the fears that Zelaya is trying to set himself up as a president-for-life and bring Honduras into the orbit of Venezuela (something Chavez has actively sought by “subsidizing” oil sales to Honduras with low interest loans), there is no denying that the precedent of the military stepping in and removing a sitting president, no matter how poorly behaved, is deeply troubling — especially in a region in which there is such a recent history of frequent military coups. In this regard, I think that the current US position (being pushed by Secretary of State Clinton in negotiations with Zelaya and Micheletti government) is probably the right one: calling for the return of Zelaya to serve out the rest of his term with strictly limited powers, and the holding on time of Honduran elections in November.

Short of that (and Zelaya is reportedly becoming increasingly unwilling to negotiate) the push should be for the interim government to hold elections on time (in four months) and for the international community to recognize the winner as the legitimate president. A third alternative, which Micheletti has said he is willing to accept, would be to hold presidential elections early, leaving both Zelaya and Mincheletti to step aside immediately.

Either way, two things should be of utmost priority to all wishing Honduras well in this situation: That military coup not again become a staple of Latin American politics, and that a president-for-life not be inflicted on the Honduran people.

13 Responses to No Strongman for Honduras

  • I thought this was a good post. I have a friend who was a missionary in Honduras when the coup happened who left out of fear of an invasion or other violence. This post mirrors much what of what she’s told me about the situation.

    She also has her own blog, if anyone’s interested: http://witnessinghope.wordpress.com/

  • “there is no denying that the precedent of the military stepping in and removing a sitting president, no matter how poorly behaved, is deeply troubling — especially in a region in which there is such a recent history of frequent military coups.”

    To what extent is this concern simply a habit of the Anglo-American approach to government and the military? In many Latin American countries, doesn’t the military have police powers we Americans would rigorously separate?

  • Nine years ago, a column of soldiers and civilian demonstrators ejected the President of Ecuador from office. The Clinton Administration remonstrated with the parties involved to allow the constitutionally-designated successor to take office. This was done after some hours and the matter was closed. That particular column of soldiers was not, as were their Honduran counterparts, enforcing a court order. IIRC, the deposed President of Ecuador, Jamil Mahaud, seemed relieved to be rid of the office (the country being in the midst of a wretched economic crisis). The disposition of the U.S. Government this time has been inexplicably stubborn in insisting that this dodgy fellow Zelaya remain in office. Roberto Micheletti is the constitutional successor, Zelaya has almost no partisans left in the national legislature, and general elections are due to be held on schedule in November. It sometimes seems as if when this Administration is given a choice of alternatives, in reliably chooses the worse one.

  • “there is no denying that the precedent of the military stepping in and removing a sitting president, no matter how poorly behaved, is deeply troubling — especially in a region in which there is such a recent history of frequent military coups.”

    There are nineteen Latin American republics. The last conventional military coup among them – featuring the replacement of the antecedent government with a military board or autocrat – occurred in Paraguay in 1989. The last which featured the replacement of a constitutional administration with a military government occurred in Bolivia in 1980. You have had various incidents falling short of that, where the president of the republic was ejected from office but the whole of the remaining nexus of constitutional office-holders remained in place. In a couple of cases, the military was the prime mover and in others, the president resigned and left the country in response to street demonstrations.

  • It may be my combination of American cultural prejudices and too much reading of Roman history (where although many of the better emperors were generals — the tendency of generals to vie for imperial power was in the long run destructive) but I would prefer to see the military not involved in removing a sitting president from power even if they then step aside to allow another constitutional leader to take power. It just seems like a destabilizing force.

    So in that sense, I’d marginally prefer to see a politically neutered Zelaya returned to power for a few months and then replaced.

    However, my overall sympathies are much more with Micheletti and the military. What must absolutely not happen is for the Obama administration to put the power behind Zelaya to allow him to come and band make himself a Chavez-style indefinite president.

    It sounds like part of the problem is that for some reason the Honduran constitution includes no provision for impeaching a sitting president, though it does allow for replacing him if he’s left the country. (Thus Zelaya’s expulsion rather than arrest and trail.)

    At first it seemed like the administration had taken precisely the wrong approach to thing, but apparently Clinton is now no longer calling Zelaya’s outer a coup (which Zelaya is objecting to loudly) and is only pushing for his return with sharply limited powers. With those conditions, I could see that being the best way to save the appearances, though I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Micheletti serve out his term instead. To my mind, the essential thing is that elections take place as scheduled in November and Zelaya not be on the ballot.

  • I may be wrong, but one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that there doesn’t appear to be much popular support for a return to power of Zelaya (which one would expect if it were a stereotypical military coup). Besides supporting a ‘rule of law’ approach to the situation, by supporting Zelaya’s return Obama may undercut Chavez’s status as a regional powerbroker. I wonder how much that was a factor.

    DarwinCatholic: What is the meaning of your username?

  • DarwinCatholic: What is the meaning of your username?

    Well, sad to say, it’s not that I’m from Australia.

    My handle dates back to my own blog (still active, and co-written with my wife) which bears the subheading, “Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don’t survive.” When we got going, I was writing a lot about the demographic tends of different political and philosophical viewpoints. As it happens, I also have a lot of interest in evolution and its relation with religion, so the theme sort of tied in there as well.

    Since I’ve been around as “DarwinCatholic” for about four years now, it seemed like a shame to lose the branding even though I went ahead and put my real name on the contributors page here, so I’ve kept the handle.

  • I came over from the Vox Nova link after I saw your comment on Exceptionalism. It embodied so well the frustrations that I’ve felt about people who have seem to confuse principled opposition of one sort with partisanship or unreasonable attention to ‘one issue amongst many.’ I thought it was a terrific comment!

    I’m interested in the relationship between evolution and philosophy (and ideologies of all sorts)- especially the theory that memetics is akin to genetics.

  • Thanks. I was a little disappointed none of the principals there responded to that, but so it goes.

    I’m never sure whether to think that memetics is terribly clever or terribly silly, but the idea of selective pressures acting on ideas is certainly interesting. There do certainly seem to be selective pressures on ideas, which include how well they fit observable reality, whether they provide the user with a certain sense of satisfaction, and whether they encourage behavior likely to result in their perpetuation. (e.g. The Shakers’ beliefs about celibacy were a major obstacle to their continuance as a sect.)

    I’m wary of the whole thing, because it seems like memetics is partly a way of treating ideas as if their appeal is more important than their truth, but it does seem like a useful way of addressing why certain ideas are persistance regardless of their truth.

  • “I’m wary of the whole thing, because it seems like memetics is partly a way of treating ideas as if their appeal is more important than their truth” – Well, I think that it is not so much that it says that such things are more important (which is a value claim) as it is a theory to explain why some ideas succeed and others don’t (which is a non-normative account of patterns of behavior). After all, societies do seem to adopt ideas in ways that do not merely take into account the verity of the ideas. (Otherwise crackpot ideas would never become popular and good ideas would never be assigned to the historical dustbin.)

  • True. And in that aspect I think it’s an interesting approach to ideas, and has the capacity to tell us a bit about ourselves in that what ideas appeal to us tells us about ourselves.

    I guess it’s not the field itself that I’m concerned with so much as some of the people who seem to be interested in it.

    But then, that can be said of many fields, many of which I find interesting.

  • I guess it’s not the field itself that I’m concerned with so much as some of the people who seem to be interested in it.

    Do you have an opinion of Rene Girard? Isn’t he the father of mimetic theory?

  • Both views have their origin in the word ‘mimema’ (something imitated), but one is memetics and the other is mimetics. I’m not very familiar with the modern continental philosophers, but I think that his idea deals with how imitating other people is a feature of human psychology. (?)

    Memetics is a term that the biologist Richard Dawkins came up with. The original idea seems to have been that from an evolutionary perspective, the success of an organism is actually a matter of gene transmission (and not the fate of the organism itself)- but that beyond that, it wasn’t the genes in the sense of particular genetic material, but the genetic coding. In other words, it was the information encoded in the genes. The theory is that just as a gene can be understood as a self-replicating unit of biological information a ‘meme’ (it rhymes with ‘theme’) is a self-replicating unit of information that is cultural rather than biological.

    Memes can be technological innovations, or stories, or ideologies, or any information that can be transmitted and reproduced from person to person. The interesting part is that you can look at the way that memes are transmitted or mutate and draw analogies to the way that genes work- and theorize about what has or will happen to ideas in a culture.

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