June 30, 2009 [LINK / comment]

Military coup in Honduras

It has been several years since a military coup has been attempted in Latin America (2002, when Chavez was briefly detained in Venezuela), and two full decades since such a coup was successful (1989, when Stroessner was overthrown in Paraguay). Yet that is exactly what has just happened in Honduras.

Early on Sunday morning, President Manuel Zelaya was seized by soldiers, and sent to exile in Costa Rica. The coup was launched to prevent Zelaya from going ahead with a referendum that was intended to authorize the election of a constitutional assembly as a first step toward allow him to stay in power beyond the one-term limit. The Honduran Supreme Court had ruled that the referendum was illegal, but Zelaya ignored them. The Congress voted overwhelmingly to support this coup, accepting a letter of resignation purportedly signed by Zelaya, and then chose Roberto Micheletti to serve as president. Zelaya denied that he had written such a letter. Opposition to Zelaya in Congress was overwhelming, and even many of his own party's members defected. Furthermore, the Honduran Supreme Court said that it had authorized the military to remove the president. See Washington Post and CNN.com. That's an unusual position for a body dedicated to upholding the rule of law, but it may be a reflection of the dire situation they believed the country was in.

President Zelaya's push for a referendum for a constitutional assembly was clearly following in the footsteps of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, each of which is now run by left-wing authoritarian rulers who had the rules changed so they can be reelected indefinitely. Presidential elections were scheduled for this coming November in Honduras, but in the wake of the coup, no one knows whether that will happen.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was understandably very circumspect in her press conference yesterday. Since the Obama administration does not make a high priority of either supporting democracy or Latin American affairs, there isn't much likelihood that the United States will take a high-profile position on the crisis in Honduras.

Among the newspapers in Honduras, El Heraldo reported favorably on the march in the capital city Tegucigalpa by 50,000 opponents of President Zelaya, celebrating being freed from the "yoke" of Hugo Chavez. Whether they represent the broad sentiment of Hondurans is uncertain, however. That newspaper mocked him for playing the role of a martyr, and for falsely claiming that his supporters had launched a general strike in Honduras.

Another paper, Proceso, seems to have a more neutral tone, but noted that in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly, Zelaya blamed the coup on "elite" forces in Honduras. He said they have falsely accused him of being a "populist or a communist who wants to ruin the country," insisting that they just want to block his plans for changing the country and reducing social inequality. He sounds a lot like President Barack Obama.

I don't follow Honduras very closely, but I was still shocked to learn that there was such an intense power struggle going on behind the scenes. Zelaya was first elected in November 2005, and at first he was considered a moderate liberal, favoring free trade with the United States and neighboring countries. One might think that the new left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua might be involved with Zelaya's push toward radicalism, but the territorial dispute between those two countries (see May 2007) makes that unlikely. Earlier this month, President Zelaya played a key role in the compromise under which Cuba was allowed to rejoin the OAS, under certain conditions. Now the OAS will play a key role in trying to broker a compromise to rescue Honduras from further chaos.

UPDATE: Late on Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to endorse Manuel Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras, and the Organization of American States has given the de facto authorities in Honduras 72 hours to reinstall him. Zelaya said he intends to return to his country this weekend, even though he had been told that he would be arrested if he did so. Obama administration officials declined to meet with Zelaya, however, explaining that Secretary of State Clinton is still recuperating from a fractured elbow. (!) See the Washington Post. It's an ironic situation, in that Zelaya is denouncing "repression" and demanding respect for constitutional norms, even though he had been embarked on a determined campaign to circumvent such norms in order to impose his will on the country. His evident egotism and willingness to polarize society is puzzling and disturbing to me. If he does try to return to Honduras, he will cause a deep and long-lasting divide within the country, which had been known as one of the more stable parts of Latin America. Hopefully the opposing factions in Honduras can arrange a compromise solution adhering to the constitutional provisions as closely as is expedient.