Honduras: Constitutional rodeo

The president should stop acting as though he were starring in an old movie.” With these words the US representative in the Organization of American States (OAS), originally appointed by the Bush administration, commented on the fact that president Manuel Zelaya had returned to Honduras, taking cover in the Brazilian embassy. Those of us likely to watch old Western movies over and over again, may get associations to the president of Honduras when the foolhardy cowboys of the movies involve themselves in reckless rescue operations of damsels in distress.

Those associations definitely came to me watching Zelaya crossing the border to Honduras «illegally» more than once the past few months. Always seen wearing his smart cowboy hat, Zelaya has built an image as a somewhat jovial «man of the people». And no matter what I think of Zelaya politically, it seems clear to me that a more PR-seeking president would be hard to find. A coup d’etat didn’t use to bring much surprise to Latin-American continent some years ago, but these things happening in Honduras in 2009 certainly is both surprising and sad. The situation is very stuck, and it is not easy for the deposed president to come on the pitch. The last thing the international community wants, is to encourage the use of military power through the attempt to overthrow Robert Micheletti, the self-declared president, who previously served as speaker of parliament and represented the same party as Zelaya.

President Zelaya is elected from the Liberal party, which originally consists of a Centrist ideology based on a liberal platform (slightly along the path of the British Liberal Democrats and similar continental parties of Europe). But in the past few years, both Zelaya and parts of his party has turned their eyes on the growing left wing-forces running Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and to a certain point Argentina, Chile and Brazil. As far as I know, Zelaya has never declared himself as a socialist, but the revolutionary genes of people like Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and last, but certainly not least, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, has somewhat appealed to the likes of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and also Óscar Arias in Costa Rica. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his Sandinista National Liberation Front may also have been a source of inspiration in the last years’ politics of the government of Zelaya, having a clear socialist profile on structural politics.

An interesting curiosity in the political situation is that the Wikipedia article about the coup started with the title of a coup, but today is called a constitutional crisis. This may seem a bit awkward, taking into consideration the overwhelming majority of countries and international organizations having condemned the whole thing as a coup. Are they crazy communists – which may be the impression one could get from Roberto Micheletti and his faithful supporters – or terminologically wrong?

One of the most central factors of this constitutional crisis/coup is a paragraph in the Honduran constitution. Article 239: «No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [emphasis added], 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

(For those of you understanding Norwegian, you could read more about my reflections on this matter in this analysis, written just a week or so after the situation culminated with the coup.)

The article in the constitution clearly states that no president having been in office may be re-elected. Zelaya wanted to challenge this part of the constitution by holding a new referendum at the same time as the other elections (Presidential, National and Local) are being held this November. This referendum was to be held to determine whether to create a constitution-generating assembly in addition to the National Assembly or not.

When discussing the legality of the coup, Roberto Micheletti has recently lifted the world’s eyes on to article 374 in the constitution stating:

«It is not possible to reform, in any case, the preceding article, the present article, the constitutional articles referring to the form of government, to the national territory, to the presidential period, the prohibition to serve again as President of the Republic, the citizen who has performed under any title in consequence of which she/he cannot be President of the Republic in the subsequent period.»

Micheletti quoted the article stating tha even to announce such a referendum privately is a crime (» . . . porque eso, incluso, anunciarlo privadamente es un delito.«)

Less than a week ago Senior Foreign Law Specialist Norma C. Gutiérrez in the American Directorate of Legal Research for Foreign, Comparative and International Law, published the results of her research, and stated:

«Available sources indicate that the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.»

But adding: «However, removal of President Zelaya from the country by the military is in direct violation of the Article 102 of the Constitution, and apparently this action is currently under investigation by the Honduran authorities.»

The report of Gutiérrez has met quite some opposition by several Honduran law specialists and experts on the constitution. You may read more about this in English and Spanish here.

Manuel Zelaya, reported to be starving in the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa, will probably never be president of his beloved Honduras again. He could not be elected in November anyway, even if the referendum went «his way». However, he then could have been candidate after the next term. CID-Gallup conducted a poll in 16 of the nation’s 18 departments between 30 June and 4 July, showing different attitudes among the Honduran people. The problem in the international press is that most media based their coverage of this poll only on one of the questions in the poll, not being able to present the whole picture to the world. Here are the two questions:

Q: Do you consider the actions taken by Mel Zelaya with respect to the fourth ballot box to have justified his dismissal from the post of President of the Republic? ¿Considera usted que las acciones que tomó Mel Zelaya con respecto a la cuarta urna justificaban su destitución del puesto de Presidente de la República?

RESULT:

Yes 41%
No 28%
Don’t know/No answer: 31%.

Q: Are you in accord with the action taken last Sunday that removed President Zelaya from the country? ¿Cuánto está usted de acuerdo con la acción que se tomó el pasado domingo que removió el Presidente Zelaya del país?

RESULT:
Support 41%
Oppose 46%
Don’t know/No Answer 13%.

First, president Manuel Zelaya received massive support from the international community, including the U.S., EU, UN and most countries in the world. In recent times, most countries and organizations have moderated their initial condemnation quite sharply after independent legal experts having reviewed the constitution with lights and lanterns found that the deposition of the president to a certain extent can be seen on as legitimate.

The constitutional rodeo is not yet over, and the president will definitely fight hard again, but the battle is probably lost. And most interesting of all is perhaps that the often constitutionally creative left forces in Latin America have gotten themselves a slap in the face.
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Tore Eikeland is the Skrivekollektivet.com commentator on Latin America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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