THE START OF A CRISIS
On 28 June, 2009, Honduran troops took President Manuel Zelaya into custody and exiled him to Costa Rica. They were carrying out a warrant from the Honduran Supreme Court in the wake of Zelaya’s repeated defiance of that court’s orders prohibiting referendums to rewrite the constitution to extend Zelaya’s term in office. The Honduran Congress later affirmed the military’s action, voting Zelaya out of office and appointing Roberto Micheletti, the Speaker of Congress, as interim president.
In an interview with SOF, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, USA (Ret.), a New York Post columnist and Fox News strategic analyst, said, “[T]hey gave a legal order to the army to remove the president; he was removed without violence and sent out of the country. The army went back to its barracks. That is NOT a coup.”
Those points were lost on the rest of the world. International reaction to Zelaya’s removal from power was decidedly negative. The United States, European Union, and Organization of American States all denounced it as a coup d’état. The demands for Zelaya’s reinstatement followed shortly thereafter. The rest of the world began to take additional steps as well. Economic sanctions came in first – and the Honduran economy began to take a hit. Yet those demands ignored the Honduran constitution.
WHAT THE HONDURAN CONSTITUTION SAYS
The Constitution of Honduras was at the center of the dispute. Article 239 of that constitution states, “Those who broke this provision or propose its reform, as well as those who support directly or indirectly, cease immediately in the performance of their respective positions and will be disqualified by ten (10) years for the exercise of public office.”
That constitution, enacted in 1982, was part of the process that returned Honduras to civilian rule after a lengthy run of military governments. One of the issues to be dealt with was the fact that in Latin America, it was quite common for leaders to extend their term in office “temporarily” to handle an emergency; however, they never quite let go of power after the emergency passed.
Article 239 was the attempt by the people of Honduras to address that problem. Article 374 also forbade any effort to change either the term office of president OR the prohibition on additional terms. One four-year term was to be the limit.
Furthermore, anyone who even proposed to change that article of the constitution while in the office of president would automatically be booted out of office. And no legislature could make that change, either. By any reasonable interpretation, Zelaya was no longer the legitimate president the instant he attempted to change the Honduran constitution to allow him to run for re-election. This made Roberto Micheletti the de jure president of Honduras. But powerful forces were backing Zelaya and they were determined to see him succeed.
THE LEFT-WING LINEUP OF LATIN AMERICA
Peters explained just who was behind this effort. “Zelaya was backed by [Venezuelan dictator] Hugo Chavez,
[Nicaraguan dictator] Daniel Ortega, [Bolivian dictator] Evo Morales, [Ecuadorian President] Rafael Correa, and
everybody’s favorite comedy duo, the Castro brothers [Fidel and Raul].”
Talk about a bad-news lineup. However time was not necessarily on their side. An election to determine Zelaya’s successor had been in the works and was scheduled for 29 November, 2009. The candidates in the two major parties had been selected the previous November. If the Honduran government and the people could hold out for five months, there would be a new president. That became the first target of Chavez and the others. They simply announced a refusal to recognize the results of the election. Even the United States initially announced it would not recognize the results of the election, prompting Ralph Peters to describe it as “a moment of disgrace for U.S. relations with Latin America. The depredations of the United Fruit Company in the 1920s are nothing compared to this.”
“The people of Honduras are standing up against world socialism and communism and the United States is on the side of the socialists and communists,” Peters added.
BRAZIL HARBORS ZELAYA; AMERICA TWISTS HONDURAN ARMS
The Obama administration was not alone. Brazil was particularly active, and allowed Zelaya to take refuge in their embassy as he tried to stir up protests. The increasingly violent protests forced the Honduran government to issue a decree that briefly suspended civil liberties. After harsh international criticism, the decree was rescinded.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration continued applying pressure to the de jure Honduran government on behalf of Zelaya. The United States revoked Micheletti’s visa. That action kept him from attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, while Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others, spoke at that assembly. Meanwhile, Brazil’s interference in Honduran affairs got a pass. Many Latin American leaders at the UN pressed for Zelaya’s return to office.
The UN and other entities demanded that Honduras back away from the Brazilian embassy even as the Brazilians harbored Zelaya, who was inciting the violent protests.
The UN Secretary General made appeals for Zelaya’s safety. Yet for all the focus on Zelaya – and effort on his behalf – nobody seemed to have bothered to check what the Honduran constitution said. The Law Library of Congress did issue a report that stated that the Honduran military and government had acted lawfully to oust Zelaya.
The response from Congressional Democrats, by means of a letter from Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), was to demand that the Library retract the report. The Law Library of Congress refused, and stood by the report.
SENATOR DEMINT HOLDS, OBAMA FOLDS
The Law Library of Congress was not alone. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) was also willing to take a stand – or in this case, place a hold. In the United States Senate, a single senator can place a “hold” on a piece of legislation or a nomination to a high government post. This senate prerogative is occasionally used to get concessions on a given policy.
DeMint placed holds on two nominees for the State Department—Arturo Valenzuela (Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs) and Tom Shannon (Ambassador to Brazil). In essence, he was going to prevent them from being confirmed until the Obama administration agreed to recognize the results of the 29 November election. This was part of a deal in which the Honduran Congress would vote on whether Zelaya should be returned to power and a national unity government would be formed. The national unity government fell apart, with Zelaya demanding reinstatement.
Faced with the possibility of not being able to fill out his foreign policy team, the Obama administration folded. They agreed to recognize the election results. Soon afterwards, Israel, Colombia, Japan, Panama, Peru, and other countries followed suit. The Honduran Congress postponed the vote on Zelaya’s return to early December.
THE ELECTION AND A VOTE
The Honduran election was, in some ways, the climax. Both major political parties—the National and the Liberal—had candidates nominated, and they ran. The National Party nominated Porfiro Lobo Sosa, who had narrowly lost the 2005 election against Zelaya. Zelaya’s Liberal Party nominated Zelaya’s former Vice President, Elvin Santos. Santos had resigned in order to be eligible for the presidency.
Sosa won the election with 55 percent of the vote to Santos’ 38 percent, with 62 percent of voters participating.
Several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Argentina, rejected the election results. In a joint statement prior to that election, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Argentinean Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stated that unless Zelaya were restored to power, the Honduran election would not be recognized.
After the election, the Honduran Congress voted against reinstating Zelaya by a 111–14 margin, for all intents and purposes validating the actions of the military on 28 June. That decision was criticized by the United States, which did note that Zelaya’s rejection of the election may have been a factor.
However, despite the Liberal Party’s decisive loss, the United States is still demanding a government of national unity and a “truth commission” to investigate what led up to the events of 28 June, 2009.
President-elect Lobo is slated to take office on 27 January, 2010. Once again, Honduras will be under an elected president.