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.