On the Honduran coup, and whether any coups are justified

The bloodless coup that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya this past week has been universally condemned by the UN, OAS, EU, major human rights, civil liberties, academic and policy organisations, as well a scores of individual countries throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond (although I have not found any public record of NZ’s response, which makes me wonder about the Key government’s attitude towards such things). Approval of the coup has been limited to the Zelaya’s opposition in Honduras, Republican bloviators and reactionary chickenhawks such as those that infest the threads at places like DPF’s blog (although DPF himself has speculated on the legitimacy of the Honduran coup, he stopped short of endorsing it). For these intellectually challenged folk, Barack Obama (rather than the US State Department or US government as a whole) has sided with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in defense of another socialist authoritarian and against “freedom” (as if the US stance was the end-all and be-all of regional politics).  Since I am not smoking the type of left handed cigarettes that produce such hallucinations, let me clarify the facts of the case, then offer some thoughts on the subject of coups in general since I have lived through a few and have studied them as part of my professional life. What is clear is this: the coup ended 15 years of peaceful electoral politics in Central America and is only the second in Latin America in the last 25 years (the other was against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and lasted less than a week). Since these were the longest periods in Latin American history free from overt military intrusion in politics, it is a sad event on that score alone. But was the coup justified?

Manuel Zelaya is a populist who was elected by a comfortable margin in 2006. He campaigned on a predictable platform of anti-elite reform (even though he comes from the rural landowning  elite himself), and by all accounts was popular with the majority. But this year, as his constitutionally mandated term office came to its conclusion, he lobbied for a constitutional reform that among other things was believed by many to include unlimited term limits on the presidency (which would allow him to run again). This constitutional jury-rigging proved successful for Chavez in Venezuela, and some thought it was this model that Zeleya was following.

If so, the trouble for Zelaya was that unlike Chavez he did not have a supplicant Congress, compliant judiciary or allied military backing his plan. Instead Congress, the Supreme Court and the military all resisted the move. Although it may be true that these entities are dominated by elite interests and therefore not so much opposed to Zelaya as what he represents, they were, under the existing Honduran constitution, within their rights to resist his pressure to that end. Confronted by that resistance, Zelaya went public with demands for a non-binding referendum on whether a constitutional reform was necessary (the referendum was scheduled for the day after the coup), and in the week before his ouster had marched with several thousand supporters on a military base in order to take possession of balloting papers stored there. That appears to have been the final straw (as a direct challenge to the corporate integrity of the armed forces), and within days a Supreme Court justice signed a writ authorising his arrest by the military on charges of treason and fraud. His arrest and deportation followed hours later.

Contrary to what conservatives claim, in opposing the coup no country is siding with Castro and Chavez out of ideological affinity. All 34 member nations of the OAS have condemned the coup and refuse to recognise the new government, as has the UN General Assembly (in fact, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza accompanied Zelaya to New York in order for the latter to make his case to the General Assembly). Under provisons of the 1991 “defense of democracy” clause inserted into the OAS Charter (resolution 1080, which was supported by the Bush 41 administration and which includes provisions for the establishment of a Unit for the Protection of Democracy in the event democratic stability is threatened in any member state), and the 2001 Interamerican Democratic Charter, a 2/3 majority of the Permanent Council of the OAS can vote to suspend member status to any state in which a democratically government is overthrown by force. Resolution 1080 was used to justify the multinational military intervention in Hait when the democratically elected Leftist government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by the military junta led by general Raul Cedras (which was also the first time in regional history that the US intervened against a pro-US military government in support of an anti-US democratic government). The IADC was invoked against the Venezuelan coup-mongerers in 2002. Hence, rather than evidence of some commie sympathies, US and other opposition to the coup is firmly grounded in international law, regional treaty obligations and multilateral institutions.

The Honduran military points out that it has not assumed power and no one died in the action against Zelaya. Instead, Zelaya’s constitutionally designated successor took his place and the Supreme Court declared the whole process to be legal. Elections scheduled for November will proceed apace. Point noted. We shall call this, then, a “soft” coup (as opposed to the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile or the 1976 military coup in Argentina).

The problem for the Honduran military is that the action was overkill given the circumstances. Ousting a democratically elected president because he is pushing for a non-binding popular referendum is a bit much when other avenues of recourse, such as his arrest by the police or tax authorities on civil or criminal charges, could have allowed him his day in court and averted the situation now unfolding. Given a range of less drastic options, why would the military make the coup move?

The answer lies in the military’s internal organisation and external threat perception. Unlike many advanced democracies, Honduras still has a military charged with internal as well as external security functions. This is a carry-over from the authoritarian days when leftist guerrilla forces operated within Honduran territory (when some of the current military commanders were junior officers blooding themselves for the first time). It is evident in the use of military personnel for police functions such as traffic control (roadblocks) in regions deemed to be of military sensitivity (such as along the Salvadorean and Nicaraguan borders). It is evident in the internal focus of military intelligence, and in the use of para-military units to supplement regular police forces. Thus, internal conflicts between civilian political factions become, by definition, threats to national security, especially when they involve the spectre of mass social unrest. Since the military is encharged with responding to internal threats, it did so after considerable in-house debate and consultation with civilian elites.

The other reason for the coup is that it sends a message. That message is squarely directed at Hugo Chavez. The Honduran military (along with the Guatemalan, Salvadorean and US militaries) is concerned about the inroads Chavez has made in Nicaragua now that former Sandinista commander Daniel Ortega is back in the presidency of that country. Remember that Chavez has purged the Venezuelan military of career professional officers in favour of partisan cronies; has opened military ties with Russia and Iran;  has purchased massive amounts of weaponry disproportionate to the threat environment in which Venezuela operates; and has formed armed civilian militias as an instrument of social and political control. Chavez may have his legitimate reasons for doing so, but that is not what matters in this instance : the Honduran military perception of his actions is all that counts.

The Honduran military fear is that he is now exporting these concepts elsewhere, not only to Nicaragua (which has been receptive to his overtures), but also to El Salvador, where a moderate Left leaning government with ties to the old FMLN guerrilla movement has recently been installed (although it shows no signs of radicalization along Chavez-inspired lines). Worse yet, Zelaya had agreed to join the Chavez-organized ALBA regional trade network in spite of Honduras’ membership in CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade organisation, which was seen as indicative of his future orientation should his proposed constitutional reforms get passed. Whether or not there is truth to these concerns (and it would appear that a considerable element of ideological paranoia has been overlayed on traditional Honduran military concerns about the security of their borders given the behaviour of their neighbours–remember the 1979 “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras), the fact is that the Honduran military want to make clear that it will not tolerate the “Bolivarization” of Honduras. Even if Zelaya is restored–and I suspect he will, especially since the OAS has given Honduras 3 days to reverse the coup–that message has been received and understood by all concerned.

As for coups in general. I shall not address coups against oppressive authoritarian regimes, such as the 1974 Revolution of the Carnations led by Left-leaning mid-ranking officers against the remnants of the Salazar regime in Portugal (and which led to democracy). The justification for such coups should be obvious (except, perhaps, to the chickenhawks).

Instead, let us consider under what conditions a coup against a democratically elected government is justifed. I can only think of one. That is when a freely-elected government suspends democratic rights (including elections, civil liberties and rights to fair trial), imprisons and kills its opponents, outlaws competing political parties, censors or closes down the media, destroys opposition (or “suspect”) organisations, and in general assumes an authoritarian character once it is installed in office (NOTE: to my mind nationalisation of foreign businesses or private property is not a justification, although fair compensation and legal disputation is expected).

Anything short of that is no justification for a coup (which means that the Honduran coup is clearly unjustifed), but military inaction in the face of such behaviour is a recipie for tragedy at home and abroad. The best example of the latter is the rise of the National Socialists from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, where Hitler and his gang of thugs used their electoral victory and ideological appeal to destroy German democracy (an event crystallised, literally, in the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938). He then turned his sights abroad.

There is only one regime in Latin American that comes even remotely close to satisfying the conditions for a legitimate anti-democratic coup, and there is still some way to go before the criteria for a recourse to arms will be justified: that of Hugo Chavez.

34 thoughts on “On the Honduran coup, and whether any coups are justified

  1. Thanks for the excellent and informative post.

    I do think there is one other regime in latin America you did not mention where a coup would be justified, namely the Castro regime in Cuba.

    I would add the following to your justification critirea:
    1) That in any such coup, the object of the coup is to restore the democratic rights taken away, as quickly as realistically possible (so a militery can not replace an authoritarian elected government with another authoritarian regime).
    2) That the sufering and harm inflicted on the civilian population (and on-violent political activists should be regarded as civilians) as a result of the coup should be substantially less than what would occur if the coup did not take place (so for instance even if a coup meets the criteria above, it would still be unjustified if 10 000 people were to die in the coup, while only 100 political prisoners had been arrested by the regime in question).

    I would agree a long the same lines as you, but would have a more broader criteria. Obviously the criteria can not be taken literally in every case, or else one can use your criteria to label many european governments as authoritarian as they have laws banning denial of the nazi holocaust, thus an attack on free speech, thus a coup against the German government e.t.c could be justified as they have taken away the free speech of holocaust deniers.

    In other words the taking away of free speech rights must be real and substantial, and not just a tiny fringe of people (like holocaust deniers, bans on pornographic material e.t.c). Same with political parties (so a coup won’t be justified if fringe parties were banned, as some neo-nazi groups are in todays Germany, and communist party’s in some western countires during the cold war). NOTE: I personally disagree with such policies, just think they are far far too minor to justify a coup.

    I would expand your criteria to include cases where there is a real and iminent threat to basic democratic freedoms, so a coup could be justified even if no democratic freedoms were taken away, but there were plans to do so (so a coup against the Nazi regime in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire once the Nazis had began to implement the enabling act, could be justified, even if no concentration camps existed at the time.

    I would expand this category to include cases where clear atempts are made to undermine the rule of law and the constitution. This would make a coup justifiable even if no political prisoners had been arrested, if there were clear plans to amend the constitution in an authoritarian manner. So if a countries electoral commission were being stacked with political cronies e.t.c even though no rigged election had been held at that time, a coup would be justifiable.

    This takes us back to the Honduras case. We should note that the consitution not only prohibited the President seeking a second term in office, it also prohibited this part of the constitution being changed. Not only that, but according to Kiwiblog article 42 of the constitution anyone who promotes the President to stay in office longer than their term looses their Honduran citizenship (presumably including the president) so read literally Zelaya had already lost his Honduran citizenship, and unless non-citizens are allowed to be president, would have from a purely legal viewpoint possibly already lost the Presidency before the coup.

    Given the clear intent and the letter of the constitution to prevent any constitutional amendments allowing a second term, it is only fair and reasonable to conclude that Zelaya’s actions in calling for a referendum went against the spirit if not the letter of the constitution. Further, given that the courts had tried to block the referendum, and the government went ahead anyway, it can be clear they did not have much respect for the rule of law.

    Now you may argue there is a clear difference between trying to undermine the constitution and the rule of law, and say locking up political prisoners. I would hold that any such distinction is very thin, as the rule of law and respect for the constitution is vital to the protection of basic democratic rights such as free speech. Ask yourself, is there any case in human history where a government if given a long enough time in power has destroyed the rule of law and the constitution, but kept basic democratic rights intact? The answer has to be NO as basic democratic freedoms can not exist without the rule of law and respect for the constitution.

    Thus any attempt to undermine the rule of law, by having an referendum in violation of court orders to make a illegal amendment to a fundamental provision of the constitution preventing the abuse of power, should be seen as preparation to take away fundamental democratic rights and freedoms.

    Ask yourself, if the referendum had suceeded, the military not intervened, and Zelaya stayed in office, would he have tried to alter other sections of the constitution (perhaps those protecting free speech) in the same way? If the referendum was able to go ahead, against the orders of the Supreme court, what else (concentration camps) might go ahead against court orders. Now sure it is possible that Zelaya might have continued in office without doing any of these things. But has any world leader done so? Has there been any case in human history of a leader violating the rule of law, by allowing an illegal referendum to take place, on wether an illegal amendment of the constitution to take place, and not gone on to further ause the power given to him (without being removed from office)? No.

    Taking away basic democratic freedoms follows taking away the rule of law as surely as night follows day.

    Now one canmake a case saying that when a country’s leader ripes up the constitution, and ends the rule of law, one should wait for the first concentration camps to be built, the first political prisoners to be arrested, the first opposition protesters to be beaten up before launching a coup. One does not need to wait, as if a leader really believed in democracy they would not ripe up the constitution and rule of law, and if they did not believe in democracy they would have no scruples about the above. Secondly waiting can be a dangerous game, as it would give the leader time to strengthen himself, stack the courts, replace army officers with cronies, making a coup once the political protesters are arrested and killed e.t.c impossible.

    I admit there is a tiny tiny chance that if the Honduran military had not intervened, Zelaya would have lost the election (but given his lack of respect for the rule of law regarding the constitution, would he have respected electoral law in the same way?) or not done anything else bad. But examining history, from Nazi Germany to Zimbabwe under Mugabe, the clear trend is that riping up constitutions and undermining the rule of law almost inevitiably leads to authoritarian dictatorship.

    I think the Honduran military were right to intervene to uphold the rule of law and the constitution, instead of taking a chance that Zelaya would have respected democratic freedoms and electoral law, despite his disrespect for constitutional law.

    One can argue that pre-emptive coups to stop possible future violations of democratic rights are going too far, but given the dangers (exemplified in Zimbabwe, Venuzuela e.t.c) of not intervening being significently greater than the dangers of intervening in this case, I consider this coup morally justified.

  2. As usual, the justifiers of this coup argue a whole bunch of “what if”s.

    Deposing an elected government is a far worse crime than anything this man is accused of.

    And lest we forget, the constitution was written by the junta so as to defend their interests and to make it very difficult to change legally.

  3. Nicholas writes:

    But has any world leader done so? Has there been any case in human history of a leader violating the rule of law, by allowing an illegal referendum to take place, on wether an illegal amendment of the constitution to take place, and not gone on to further ause the power given to him (without being removed from office)? No.

    Well that’s a fairly specific set of conditions so I suspect that the answer might be no.

    However, the whole argument relies on the referenda being illegal, which it probably was, but that’s a funny thing isn’t it? The ability to even test the peoples’ wishes about constitutional change being illegal.

    The American revolution was certainly illegal and unconstitutional, by that yardstick, or any other. But still democratic for all that. King George was defending the constitution, but not democracy.

    Therefore, I feel that the fact that the Honduran constitution has those clauses is something that counts against it, if democracy is the yardstick. Surely losing one’s citizenship (if that is the case) is a harsh penalty for peacefully seeking constitutional change.

    I think, (and hopefully Pablo or someone else will correct me if I’m wrong), that Colombia faced a similar conundrum before they changed their constitution in 1990. That is, to try and change the constitution was unconstitutional. They got around this by holding an unofficial referendum, that the courts turned a blind eye to, and then when the reults came in for change , just got on with it.

    Which would be an example of your scenario quoted above, if I’ve got the story straight


    That also seems like a similar scenario to what might have been attempted in Honduras. After all, what is the actual harm in finding out if the people want to change the constitution?

    “Who would be opposed to such a thing?” and “why?” seem to me to be just as valid questions as the ones you pose about Zelaya.

  4. The argument that the proposed referendum was simply Zelaya testing the waters on constitutional change relies on a false premise, the idea of a non-binding election that was requested by a Head of Government (in his role as head of government not in his role as leader of a political party) using public funds (rather than using party funds to commission an opinion poll) was real. Those who would use this argument would have is believe that the proposed referendum was not an attempt to politically blackmail the Congress and the Courts into refusing to enforce the Constitution of Honduras.

    Plebiscites are not a tool commonly used by democracies, they are the tool of dictators and would-be dictators. Zelaya’s attempt at a referendum would never have gotten anywhere in Australia. He was asking for a blank cheque for Constitutional change. No democratically elected official has the right to ask that.

    The other problem with the “only a non-binding referendum” argument is that it is factually incorrect. Zelaya had published a decree that immediately after ‘victory’ in the ‘non-binding referendum’, the process of constitutional reform would begin at once.

    As for the military refusing to conduct the election in accordance with its usual role, this was an absolutely valid action, and the refusal to carry out Zelaya’s orders was legal. No military officer is required to obey an illegal or unconstitutional order. Remember that a Honduras military officer swears to uphold the Constitution. Sacking an officer for refusing to follow an illegal order is an unreasonable and unconscionable act.

    Although I am not familiar with the exact process of removing a President of Honduras, it seems to me that it should involve the Congress and the Courts. In the case of the ousting of Zelaya, both the Congress and the Honduras Supreme Court called for his removal. The Supreme Court even issuing a court order for Zelaya’s arrest. If the highest court of a country cannot issue a warrant to arrest the President, who can? Who can ensure that a President is accountable in every sense (including in criminal law)? Someone clearly must in all cases, and I cannot think of a better institution than the highest court. The actions of the Army in this case were simply to enforce a court order. The reason the police didn’t do it was that in Latin America, political leaders rarely ‘come quietly’. In the absence of a Gendarmerie, the Army is the natural choice.

    That Zelaya is an authoritarian is beyond doubt. He refused to submit his government’s budget to Congress, he said his government had the right to tap phone conversations as it liked (though they stopped after a month after a public outcry). Zelaya declared that the Congress had no right to investigate him, he actually said “Congress cannot investigate me”. In 2007, Zelaya ordered all TV and radio stations to broadcast government propaganda. You wanted examples of Zelaya suppressing democratic rights, I have just presented three:
    1) Eliminating the right to privacy as well as the right to protection against unwarranted search and seizure
    2) Denying the right of the peoples’ representatives to investigate the government
    3) Suppressing freedom of the press.

    You said that the seizure of private property was not a suppression of democratic rights that warranted the removal of an elected government. Rights are not an abstract construct, they must be able to be realised in the real world. This means private property rights. The right to start a business or otherwise make your own way in life is just as important as the right to free speech or freedom of worship. Let us take freedom of worship, if all land is seized by the government, you can only build a House of Worship if the government lets you. If they seize all printing presses, you can only print my religious texts if the government lets you. If they seize all transport, then (outside walking distance), your congregation can only attend of the Government Transport run a service near your house of worship. Without private property, there is no religious freedom. I can go on with the other major freedoms, but I think you will take my point.

    A democratically elected office holder is not an elected dictator, with the right to do as he pleases while in office. The difference between rounding up political prisoners and attempting to undermine/junk the Constitution and the law is only a difference of degree. Substantially, both actions are the same, they both involve a democratically elected office holder refusing to be bound by the legal and Constitutional limitations of his office.

    There can be no popular mandate to break the law, and there can never be a popular mandate to violate the Constitution. Those who say that there can be a popular mandate to violate the law and the constitution are not the advocates of democracy, they are the advocates of mob rule. Mobs don’t respect democratic norms, and they never will.

    Links: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31638542

  5. Thanks Nicholas and Chris for the interesting counterpoints. I simply do not see Zelaya’s actions as being as much of a slippery slope as you do. In fact, as much as I read Zelaya to be a power-hungry populist more than a champion of the people (or real socialist), I do not see his actions to date as warranting a coup simply because he did not have the ability to carry through his proposals with majority support. Thus the coup was too much too early, IMO. Even in Honduras there are options short of removal by military force, and they were ignored for the reasons I describe above. In any event, whether Zelaya returns or not to Honduras (and perhaps power), he is now the lamest of lame ducks so the overall point was made (which will probably be the basis of a political compromise that allows him to return).

    As George mentioned, the current constitution has its origins in the pre-1990s dictatorships and has an elite bias. It has been ammended before, but that was done by Congress. That is the way this proposal should have been worked, and with Congress opposed for the moment, he should have accepted his defeat. Yet, I do not think that calling referenda and plebiscites is only the tactic of dictators even if done as a response to Congressional opposition, and in fact wish that there was more space for such on matters like abortion and gun rights in the US. In sum, Zelaya’s manner of going about it was wrong (or at least too provocative), but allowing Hondurans to have a voice on whether a constitutional overhaul is needed does not constitute a subversion of democracy in my mind. Had Zelaya then tried to mandate a review in spite of majority opposition in the referendum, or had he tried to ramrod reforms through before the Nov elections, then it might have warranted a tougher judicial response–but still not a coup. As for the charges that he was whole scale curtailing civil liberties and opposition rights, that is a heavily disputed line of argument and one not widely accepted by Honduras-watchers. Heck, if this is a reason to oust him then W. Bush should have been overthrown because of the Patriot Act and illegal wiretapping, to say nothing of the lies justifying an aggressive war on a non-threatening state–all of which were patently unconstitutional yet “popular” at the time of their enactment.

    Nichols: I did not list Cuba simply because the Castro regime is authoritarian and does not meet the criteria to be included in the “democratic coup” category.

  6. FWIW, Alvaro Vargos Llosa (the younger VL) seems to be more or less in agreeance with you, Pablo: see here. The planets have indeed been aligning in interesting ways lately…

  7. Pingback: Some Honduras Stuff | BK Drinkwater

  8. Pingback: Must-read: Pablo on coups | No Right Turn

  9. Honduran Supreme Court Justice speaks
    Bloomberg reports:

    Honduras’s military acted under judicial orders in deposing President Manuel Zelaya, Supreme Court Justice Rosalinda Cruz said, rejecting the view of President Barack Obama and other leaders that he was toppled in a coup.

    “The only thing the armed forces did was carry out an arrest order,” Cruz, 55, said in a telephone interview from the capital, Tegucigalpa. “There’s no doubt he was preparing his own coup by conspiring to shut down the congress and courts.”

    Cruz said the court issued a sealed arrest order for Zelaya on June 26, charging him with treason and violating the constitution, among other offenses. Zelaya had repeatedly breached the constitution by pushing ahead with a nationwide vote that the court ruled illegal, and which opponents contend might have paved the way for a prohibited second term.

    She compared Zelaya’s tactics, including firing of the armed forces chief for obeying a court order to impound the ballots for the poll, with those of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

    “Some say it was not Zelaya but Chavez governing,” she said, adding that the arrest order will be made public today along with documents pertaining to a secret investigation that took place for weeks under the high court’s supervision.

    Cruz acknowledged that the interim government faced a “very difficult” task trying to sway the U.S. and other countries to recognize its authority.

    ‘Sovereign and Independent’

    “But as a sovereign and independent nation, we have the right to freely decide to remove a president who was violating our laws,” she said. “Unfortunately our voice hasn’t been heard.”

    From Half Sigma

    “Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution reads:

    Article 239 — No citizen that 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.

    It’s not exactly like the U.S. Constitution, but does it violate norms of democratic republican government? I don’t think so. The problem of presidents who never leave power is all too common among undeveloped countries, so a very strict prohibition against multiple terms of office seems appropriate.

    Zelaya directly violated Article 239 by ordering an election to reform the Constitution in order to keep himself in power beyond his term of office. He was then removed from office as the Constitution of his own country calls for.

    How was Zelaya’s removal from office unlawful? It seems to be exactly what the Constitution of Honduras requires given his crime. Obama should be praising Honduras for following its own Constitution and peacefully removing a president from power. Instead, he demands that Honduras violate its own Constitution by bringing Zelaya back.

    Obama’s support of Zelaya is the most outrageous thing he’s done since he was elected. I knew he was a liberal, and expected stuff like tax increases and judicial appointments like Sonia Sotomayor. What I didn’t expect was that he would demand that a guy trying to become president-for-life be returned to power after he was lawfully removed by his own country’s legal processes.

    Does Obama sympathize with Zelaya because he plans to violate Article XXII of the U.S. Constitution (which was proposed and ratified in the United States after President Roosevelt refused to honor the two-term tradition set by George Washington)?

    The New York Times, which supposedly publishes all the news that’s fit to print, doesn’t see fit to write about Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution and how Zelaya’s removal was consistent with Honduran law.”


  10. In regard to whether or not this was a coup: I think we in the West are somewhat prejudiced about Latin America, seeing it as a land of bananas, drugs, spicy foods, spicier senoritas, and coups.

    I do not see his actions to date as warranting a coup simply because he did not have the ability to carry through his proposals with majority support. Thus the coup was too much too early, IMO. Even in Honduras there are options short of removal by military force, and they were ignored for the reasons I describe above. In any event, whether Zelaya returns or not to Honduras (and perhaps power), he is now the lamest of lame ducks so the overall point was made (which will probably be the basis of a political compromise that allows him to return).

    When his vote had been declared illegal and the Supreme Court confiscated the ballots, Zelaya’s response was to gather a mob, and march on to an Air Base to take the ballots away. What you call a slippery slope argument is nothing of the sort. It is a clear case of Zelaya having contempt for the law. To say there were options short of removal by military force is to say that someone who had shown clear contempt for the law would suddenly turn around and respect it. Congress had already tried, as I pointed out and as my links point out and Zelaya spat in their faces (their democratically elected faces, in refusing the scrutiny of Congress, Zelaya acted in a patently undemocratic manner), the Supreme Court tried, his response was to gather a mob and violate the Court’s order. The only option short of using military force was to send the police to arrest him. Honduras has no Gendarmerie, internal security tasks that are beyond the humble copper are handled by the Honduras Army. Sending a couple Honduran ‘bobbies’ around would more than likely have resulted in a firefight with Zelaya’s security guards. As Fo, the removal of Zelaya (regardless of who actually removed him physically from the Presidential Palace) was legal and in fact required by the law.

    The most controversial aspect (apart from the international reaction) was their decision to exile Zelaya. Whether or not that was necessary isan interesting question. I, for one, would rather have seen him on trial, but I don’t claim to understand Honduras better than the Hondurans do.

  11. A very measured and balanced analysis Pablo.

    One of the things that has struck me about the whole Honduran affair is that while the Western media have obviously sympathised with Zelaya, at the same time they have also bought into this whole notion that he is “another Chávez”, which is of course the line spun by his conservative opponents but in fact has very little basis in reality!

  12. Regarding what was writen by me above (other than being too long) on further reflection perhaps the military could have acted too early. I’m not aware of what other means were avaliable, but the coup appears to have done the job of removing him from office. And while it could be possible to argue the military should have waited longer (say stage the coup the day after he was meant to leave office if he didn’t, or have the courts or congress impeach him) I regard his removal from office as doing more good than bad.

    Like Chris I don’t see much real difference between trying to rip up the constitution and rule of law, and locking up political prisoners e.t.c, other than that one is a nessescary prelude to the other.

    In any case, Zelaya’s actions regarding the referendum should have definately sent alrm bells ringing, especially regarding his past behavouir as Chris described.

    When deciding if a coup is legitimate, the overall actions of a government should be examined, so while Helen Clarks pledge card overspending and retrospective legislation, electoral finance act, and canceling the New Plymouth byelection, prosecuting a opposition politician for a trifling offence (riding tractor up steps of Parliament) might not justify a coup here, if the same actions were preformed by a leader who had done the same but had shown other non-democratic tendencies (say stacking the courts and electoral comission with political cronies, gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, harrasment of oppositon politicians) it might form part of a justification for a coup. So Zelaya’s actions like wiretaping phones, even though done by President Bush for different circumstances, does not justify a USA coup, they could form part of a justification for this one.

  13. From a Kiwi married to a Honduran and currently living in Honduras, thank you Pablo. This is the most balanced and rational explanation of the situation here that I have read throughout this crisis. Even the thoughtful comments are a pleasure to read compared to the emotive and often vitriolic comments to be found on Honduran blogs and websites (anybody tried following #honduras on Twitter? a nightmare).

    While the legal arguments can, and have been, batted back and forth since Sunday, it is that emotion which really complicates this whole matter. Hondurans, more particularly the vocal middle and upper classes, most certainly do not want Zelaya back. My observation is that they are so happy to see him go they have been blind to any issues with the way in which he was deposed, and to emerging issues under the new ‘president’ such as the erosion of civil liberties and the clampdown on domestic media. Should Zelaya try to return, or the “new” leadership sway to international pressure we may find ourselves in the midst of even more civil unrest, as many of the powerful sections of this society simply will not accept his return.

    I personally think, as you do, that there was not yet sufficient justification for the coup, and that the ‘new’ government is neither legal nor democratic. However the situation is so volatile, and emotions so high that I think very cautious and careful diplomacy – not demands for Zelaya’s return – is what is needed. There is no solution that will satisfy all, and we may be looking for the lesser of two evils, the lesser evil that will retain as much stability and calm as possible and that will allow for the scheduled November presidential elections to go ahead as planned, peacefully.

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  15. Sharon: thanks, and stay safe. So far the coup is looking pretty mellow and a political compromise is most likely being worked on. Zelaya may get to go back home, but his reign is over.

    FP: Gracias companero. Ojala esto se resuelve pacificamente.

    Chris: by virtue of European colonisation and being located in the Western Hemisphere, Latin America is considered part of “Western” civilisation. Thus your comment about “Western views,” and the vulgar stereotypes you mention, are not “Western.” Do you mean “Northern” or “Anglo-Saxon?”

    Fo: the comment by the Supreme Court justice that Chavez was ruling Honduras by Zelaya as proxy replicates a standard accusation by conservative Latin American elites regarding Left leaders. Allende was accused of being Castro’s proxy by the 1973 Chilean coup leaders and their civilian allies. Joao Goulart was accused of being a socialist puppet of Castro by the Brazilian generals in 1964. The same goes for the Sandinistas in the 1980s. It is a tired canard, and underscores my point about why the military really intervened: it was about drawing a line in the perceived Boliviarian sand much more than about Zelaya’s actions per se.

    Chris, Fo and Nicholas: do you really want the military to be the ulitmate arbiters of political disputes in a democracy? Do you really believe that this is a good precedent? Have you really thought through what that exactly means (having the military as the ultimate determinants of who gets to rule)? It strikes me that you may not have lived through a coup or under a military regime (which I have) because otherwise you would be much less absolute in your convictions on this matter.

    Without wanting to appear pedantic, and reiterating that I have lived through and been a participant observer in several LATAM coups as well as having professionally written about coups at some length, let me point out some additional facts:

    Military coups are the product of push and pull factors. Pull factors are events external to the military that pull them into political intervention. These include civil unrest, institutional failure and civilian elite pleading. Push factors are factors internal to the military that push them to intervene. This include corporate prerogatives and organization, internal factionalisation, inter-service rivalries and strategic perspective. In the Honduran case, there was no mass civil unrest or institutional failure present at the time Zelaya was ousted. Instead, it was conservative civilian elite pleading that pulled the military into intervening on their behalf, which demonstrates their lack of confidence in civilian political institutions. Nothing Zelaya has done could not have been resolved via civliian institutional channels, but in asking for early military intervention the conservative elites abdicated their responsiblities to do so. Remember that the Supreme Court and military are among the most conservative elements in Honduran society. Now, though their actions, they have preciptated both an insitutional and socio-political crisis that could have been averted or resolved via peaceful means.

    The push factors that led to this intervention have been outlined in the post, and have mostly to do with the Honduran military’s visceral distaste for anything that smacks of “communism.”

    Which brings up a larger point. What is the common denominator between the Brazil coup of 1964, Argentine coups of 1966 and 1976, Uruguayan and Chilean coups of 1973, the half dozen Bolivian coups betewen 1970-1990, the US military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1966, and the CIA involvement in the Guatemalan coup of 1954 (among others)? In all cases democratically elected, purportedly Left leaders were ousted by conservative civlian-military coalitions with US backing amid accusations of being puppets of foreign communist or socialist interests. Could it be that the Latin American Right simply cannot accept any form of Left-leaning rule, democratic or not? Is not the changed US stance in this case a sign of positive change towards a more nuanced, multilateral and respectful approach to ist regional neighbours?

    Moreover, why is that, other than the Cuban and Sandinista revolutions (both initially widely supported by the majority of the population), all modern Left-leaning governments in Latin America have been democratically elected into office, only to have the disloyal conservative opposition turn to coup plotting as a means of removing them rather than work through institutional channels? Is this conservative unsurpation of the popular will not a bid odd to you? Could it be that you are casting a blind eye on this discrepency due to ideological bias?

    The good news is that the US has already suspended economic and military aid to Honduras, its neighbours and other Latin American nations have closed their borders to all forms of Honduran trade, the EU has suspended trade relations and the OAS will suspend its membership in the organisation if Zelaya is not restored this weekend. Needless to say, Venezuela has suspended Petrocaribe oil shipments to Honduras. For all intents and purposes, the golpistas have been backed into a corner by the international response. Thus, the writing is on the wall for the coup-mongerers, which is why a political compromise will now be worked out.

    I shall leave aside for the moment what I know about US involvement (or non-involvement) in the machinations before the coup, but suffice it to say that the move was not orchestrated from Washington although it may have been aware of it in advance.

  16. Chris, Fo and Nicholas: do you really want the military to be the ulitmate arbiters of political disputes in a democracy?

    Pablo, you’re attacking a strawman. The military did not act unilaterally, they carried out an order from the Supreme Court, and (before Zelaya’s exile) they refused to carry out an unconstitutional order. This not a military coup as most would understand it (i.e. the military deciding of its own accord to take over)

    Your discussion of left/right is, in the case of Honduras, a red herring. The reason it is a red herring is that Zelaya had already moved outside the law. He had already starting undermining and destroying the democratic rights that you claim to cherish. I notice that you have ignored the three points I made on this subject. I will reiterate them in case you didn’t see them:
    1) The difference between a democratically elected leader initiating torture, removing freedom of speech/press/assembly (etc) on the one hand, and a democratically elected leader deciding to junk the constitution and the law on the other hand is a difference of degree only. There is no real difference. This is because the preservation of our democratic rights depends on governments obeying the law and the constitution. When governments move outside the law, the only thing that keeps our democratic rights intact is the benevolence of those who have broken the constitution and the law. Without some real means of keeping leaders (even democratically elected leaders and popular leaders for that matter) within the law, then the only protection for our rights is the benevolence of those in charge.

    2) Zelaya already started the process of destroying democratic freedoms:
    a) Eliminating the right to privacy as well as the right to protection against unwarranted search and seizure (universal phone tapping)
    b) Denying the right of the peoples’ representatives to investigate the government (Zelaya said Congress couldn’t investigate him, and he refused to submit his Government’s budget to them)
    c) Suppressing freedom of the press (mandatory government broadcasting)

    3) The suppression/destruction of private property rights is a violation of democratic freedoms of the type you describe because the actual exercise of those freedoms depends on private property.

  17. Chris,

    The difference between a democratically elected leader initiating torture, removing freedom of speech/press/assembly (etc) on the one hand, and a democratically elected leader deciding to junk the constitution and the law on the other hand is a difference of degree only. There is no real difference.

    Not to speak for Pablo, but differences of degree are “real”. All breaches of law or constitution simply are not equal. A given response needs to be justified on grounds of principle (that a breach has occurred) and on grounds of severity (the extent or nature of that breach).


  18. Firstly, I want to absolutely clear that military coups (against democratic governments) are justified only in extreme circumstances, such as when a democratic government turns authoritarian, breaks the constitution and rule of law, or looses control of the country.

    It should be noted that the military has a job to protect and defend the constitution. This means it is their job to defend the constitution against a democratically elected government that is trying to destroy the constitution.

    The Economist magazine has two good articles about the situation in Honduras, and make two facts:
    1) The Honduran constitution states that referendums can only be held with the consent of congress. As the referendum had not been approved by congress, the referendum itself was against the constiution of Honduras.
    2) The head of the army refused to take part in the referendum, and as a result Zelaya tried to sack him.

    Put together, this means:
    1)Zelaya broke the constiution by having a not only illegal but unconstitutional referendum on an illegal change to the constitution (which meant that he was stripped of his Honduran citizenship, and removed from office for 10 years from a legal viewpoint, without the coup).
    2) Zelaya tried to sack an army officer, because he refused to break the constiution with him.

    The article also point out that Zelaya had an approval rating of 30% in opinion polls before the coup, and if he tried to contest a fair (note the word fair, if Zelaya thinks breaking the constitution is OK, whats the odds he will think rigging elections is OK) election for a second term would have probably been defeated at the ballot box (and deserved to be defeated).

    Chris, Fo and Nicholas: do you really want the military to be the ulitmate arbiters of political disputes in a democracy?

    The ultimate arbiters in a democracy should be the courts (if impartial) and the people. However, when these arbiters are not avaliable (due to rigged elections and courts stacked with political cronies), and when the constitution or basic democratic freedoms are under threat, it should be the military who should step in.

    How about you answer this question:
    Should the military refuse to carry out orders by the Supreme court, for the arrest of a “President” for treason, who breaks his countries constitution by holding an illegal referendum, tries to sack a military officer for refusing to break the constitution, and according to the constitution be stripped of his Honduran citizenship and removed from office for 10 years without any coup?

    I’d love to hear your answer to that question. I will talk about other coups in Latin America in a different comment.

  19. Not to speak for Pablo, but differences of degree are “real”. All breaches of law or constitution simply are not equal. A given response needs to be justified on grounds of principle (that a breach has occurred) and on grounds of severity (the extent or nature of that breach).

    Placing the word “real” in quotation marks (while conceding that the difference is still one of degree) doesn’t rebutt my case. Why do the differences of degree warrant differences of response?

    The substantial offence is the same. The President of Honduras swears to uphold the Constitution. That means all of the Constitution, not just the bits that spell out the various democratic rights, or the politically useful bits, the whole Constitution. You have also ignored the other points.

    Why should a President who violates one part of the Constitution because its politically useful to violate it respect any other part of the Constitution?

    In the event of a President violating the Constitution without being held to account for it, what do we have to protect our rights? I have answered that question: all we have without constitutional government and the rule of law is the benevolence of politicians. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am not prepared to trust in benevolence.

  20. Chris,

    Not so much conceding there’s only a difference of degree as pointing out that it doesn’t matter. The quotation marks indicate that it was your word. You suggested that differences of degree are fake. They’re not. No amount of sophistry about ‘all the constitution’ changes that.

    It doesn’t follow that the smallest technical breach of any part of the constitution merits the most extreme response of a military coup. Responses ought to be commensurate to the offence, and cognisant of the wider political context in which the offence occurred. They are elsewhere; in criminal law as in constitutional law, and owing to that there is an onus on those who would change the norm to justify it, rather than expecting those in the position of orthodoxy to do so. One good reason for proportionality of a sort is that it discourages actors from taking extreme measures; if the penalty is the same for assault as for murder, or for organising a peaceful demonstration and referendum as for raising a militia army, which would one rationally choose, all else being equal?

    It’s fair enough to argue that the Honduran coup was justified on the basis that Zelaya’s actions warranted it by their nature or severity, but you can’t legitimately argue that a coup was justified simply because he breached the constitution.

    I agree in this case that some action was necessary to bring Zelaya back into line, and I agree with your premise that the rule of law must be defended. But advocating the military overthrow of heads of state for every constitutional transgression, when other avenues exist to rein them in, is immoderate at best and foolish at worst.


  21. It doesn’t follow that the smallest technical breach of any part of the constitution merits the most extreme response of a military coup.

    Why not? Your example of murder vs. assault is a false analogy.

    What you say also begs the question of what is a “small technical breach” of the constitution? It also begs the question of whether or not Zelaya’s actions can be considered a “small technical breach”. Differences in response are warranted (in the case of governments violating the constitution) not by differences in the breach, but by differences in the government’s response to being advised by the relevant authorities (whether these authorities be the legislature, the government’s own legal advisors, or the judiciary) that its actions are unconstitutional.

    Zelaya took the attitude that the law was whatever he decided it was, and that anyone who opposed him had to be pushed out of the way. Both the courts and the Congress tried to stop him before it reached this stage, but he went on regardless

  22. Chris,

    Why not? Your example of murder vs. assault is a false analogy.

    We disagree. Nevertheless: proportionality in crime and punishment is how things are. If you want to scrap it, argue your case. I don’t need to justify existing norms.

    What you say also begs the question of what is a “small technical breach” of the constitution?

    No, it doesn’t. I’m not so much arguing Zelaya’s actions were a technical breach as arguing that, by your logic, even the smallest such breach would warrant a coup. It’s reductio ad absurdum to illustrate the fallacy of your absolutist argument.

    Differences in response are warranted (in the case of governments violating the constitution) not by differences in the breach, but by differences in the government’s response to being advised by the relevant authorities (whether these authorities be the legislature, the government’s own legal advisors, or the judiciary) that its actions are unconstitutional.

    I’m not arguing that the authorities’ advice (to overthrow Zelaya in response to his breach) was illegal or false (is)- I’m arguing it was wrong (ought).


  23. Nicholas: In answer to your counter-question: it is not the military’s role to serve as the bailiff in political disputes. It is an axiom of democratic politics that the military should remain neutral in such matters and focused on physical threats to national security. Upholding the constitution does not mean serving as political sheriff–it means abiding by it as an institution.
    As I said in the post, Zelaya could have been arrested by the Police, detained on civil and criminal charges while authority was passed to his successor. The fact that he had low support in public opinion polls would have helped that process.
    Article 239 is worth debating because one term in office may too short a time frame to enact good policy (so two terms might be worth considering) and because of the draconian penalties imposed for daring to run again. I agree that Congress is the place to do it, but as I have said repeatedly, this coup was over the top and will cause more grief to Honduras than necessary.

  24. We disagree. Nevertheless: proportionality in crime and punishment is how things are. If you want to scrap it, argue your case. I don’t need to justify existing norms.

    Murder and assault are fundamentally different crimes.

    No, it doesn’t.

    Yes it does. Can you tell me the difference between a small breach and a large one?

    I’m not arguing that the authorities’ advice (to overthrow Zelaya in response to his breach) was illegal or false (is)- I’m arguing it was wrong (ought).

    His breach wasn’t the only reason the Courts ordered his overthrow. His response to repeated warnings/judgements that his actions were unconstitutional formed part of the reason. I will remind you: Zelaya’s response to repeated warnings that his actions were unconstitutional was totally contemptuous. He didn’t merely make a technical breach of the Honduras Constitution, he actively held it, and the institutions charged with defending and preserving it, in contempt.

    When a President regards a constitution as a mere scrap of paper, standing between him and his political ambitions, then the only proper thing is for him to be removed from office.

  25. Nicholas: In answer to your counter-question: it is not the military’s role to serve as the bailiff in political disputes. It is an axiom of democratic politics that the military should remain neutral in such matters and focused on physical threats to national security. Upholding the constitution does not mean serving as political sheriff–it means abiding by it as an institution.

    You are speaking from the perspective of a New Zealander. The same point of view on the role of the military is shared throughout the English-speaking world (so far as I have observed). Do Hondurans see the role of their armed forces in the same way?

  26. No Chris, I am speaking from the perspective of a US citizen who was raised in Latin America, who has spent 25 years writing about the region (including on civil-military relations, coups and insurgencies), has worked in the Pentagon on Latin American issues (including efforts to democratise civil-military relations in the region as well as being the lead author of the 1995 US regional security strategy for the region)), who has spent time at the State Department as a Fellow working on regional political matters, and who has lived in Honduras as part of a consultancy for a US security agency. I therefore have had a long and keen interest in the region, one that I continued to have after moving to NZ and now to an Asian country (I am currently in the US BTW, and am in touch with former colleagues in DC who are working on this matter).

    I can assure you that the standard for democratic civil-military relations I have outlined above is not parochial, and that in fact the Honduran military had no constitutional obligation to serve as the Court or Congressional bailiff in this matter. It simply choose to get involved for the reasons I have detailed in the post and thread, and will now have to pay the price for that unwise decision.

    Sorry for the brief bio–I outline it to disabuse you of the notion that I am naive or ignorant about this subject.

  27. Let me put this to you: why do you think sending police would have made a difference? It might have made a difference in the image of Zelaya’s removal but not in the substance (i.e. Zelaya being forcibly removed on the order of the Supreme Court).

    If (as you say) Hondurans don’t see their armed forces as Constitutional bailiffs, then why did it not occur to the Congress and the Courts to use someone else (anyone else) in that role?

    Without the connection to the security apparatus of Honduras that you have, I can only go on what I see, and what I see is that the Honduras Supreme Court, and the Honduras Congress do see the armed forces as Constitutional bailiffs because the Supreme Court and Congress used them as Constitutional bailiffs, and (according to the evidence we have at hand) did not think of using anyone else.

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  29. Here is a question. If a fundamentally wrong ideology – lets call it “market fascism” – is so entrenched in the political, media and business elites of a country as to be incapable of being removed by legal or peaceful means, is that justification for change agents to seek real change through other means, even if their political and economic goals are less than total revolution?

  30. Tom: Two points: 1) a “fundamentally wrong ideology” that can be challenged via mass collective direct (violent) action would have to be one that completely subjugates the majority via repressive as well as economic and political means–i.e. tyranny. Otherwise it is a matter of disputed opinion as to its legitimacy and therefore not a justification for its overthrow by force (I assume that you include repression in your definition of “market fascism”; if not, the point is moot). 2) The Easter European “quiet” revolutions were remarkable not because they were revolutionary–they were not–but because of the relative absence of mass collective violence in pursuit of regime change (save Romania, in which elite ideological disintegration led to inter-elite violence without mass participation). Thus even in those cases, in spite of a common recognition that the Stalinist regimes were, in fact, tyrannical (or at least ideologically defunct), the masses used relatively peaceful extra-institutional means to press their case for change. I should note that in all instances the key to mass success, be it via force or peaceful means, rests as much on the ideological unity and organisational capability of the repressive apparatuses as much as it does the will of the people. So long as the agents of repression remain unified and proficient at applying organised violence against their own people, the chances of success for any grassroots uprising remain slim at best. The key, therefore, is to undermine the ideological unity of the repressive apparatuses as part of a counter-hegemonic project, which is exactly what the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Hungarians (and to a lesser extent East Germans) did (the processes of regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Central Asian republicans were much more elite driven and thus not comparable, as “bottom-up” change, to the afore-mentioned in spite of their often being classified as so-called “coloured” revolutions).

    Lew: Thanks for the cite/link.

  31. Pablo. Take a break from marking scripts. Your prose will me less dense. You still seem to support the bush doctrine, albeit with longer words. Hungarians refer to “the changes”. No revolution there. I will be in Romania tomorrow and will report back on the depths of ongoing revolutionary thought. Methinks they would all be happier with more self determination and less institutionalized corruption

  32. Sagenz: Lets be clear: I d not support the Bush doctrine. The reason is simple. Other than Germany and Japan, devastated as they were by defeat in all-out war, there has not been one single instance of a democracy being imposed by force by an external actor. Not one. The move to democratize has to come from within, and then may be abetted by external actors. In countries with long histories of authoritarianism and no democratic culture or tradition, no amount of external aid or guidance is going to make them democratic, at least within one or two generations (think Afghanistan and Iraq). Honduras has just recently begun its process of democratisation, which means a lot more than elections and constitutions. The current crisis is reflective of the long way it has to go–and both sides of the crisis can share the blame for it.

    I also think that the so-called Bush Doctrine, which only lasted from 2001-2004, was nothing more than an ideological cover for US attempts to impose its strategic domination in the Middle East, using Iraq as a land-based carrier for the projection of military force in the region (hoping to cower Syria, Iran and to move quickly against Islamicists in the Horn of Africa and Mahgreb as well as Central Asia). That strategy backfired simply because it was over-ambitious and poorly thought out.

    I am a realist on such matters, and the Bush Doctrine was as pie-in-the-sky (of a neocon sort) as was Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for the Treaty of Versailles.

    Please report back on Romania. And BTW, thanks to certain events back in Auckland I am no longer teaching and in fact have zero prospects of ever doing so again in NZ. My “dense” prose just reflects my training and ongoing research interests, not my current (un) employment status.

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