It was the coup heard around the world.
No sooner had the Honduran military overthrown the country’s leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, than the international community erupted in outrage. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the military’s intervention, and called for Zelaya to return to power. The World Bank is temporarily suspending loans to Honduras. Venezuela and Ecuador have threatened military retaliation if their embassies or staff members are harmed. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has even threatened war, warning that “I’ll do everything possible to overthrow” the transition government. Even President Obama has joined the international chorus denouncing the coup as a subversion of democracy and the rule of law.
But is such censure justified? Although the coup may not have been the best course of action, in removing Zelaya the Honduran military was acting to preserve the checks and balances required for a democracy to function. Moreover, if Zelaya were allowed to return to power, as some now urge, there is reason to believe that it would be a blow for the country’s democracy and a victory for Hugo Chavez, who sees Honduras as a key piece in his plan to create a socialist bloc opposed to the United States in Latin America.
Zelaya was democratically elected in 2006, but that does not necessarily mean he is a democrat. Indeed, Zelaya gave every indication that he intended to hold on to power beyond the one term that he is allowed under the Honduran constitution. To that end, Zelaya had called for a national referendum on whether a vote should be held in November to establish an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution to allow for presidents to run for re-election. This referendum was opposed by the Congress, Zelaya’s own political party, and most important, by the Supreme Court, which ruled it illegal, as did the other legal authorities in the country. Zelaya ordered the military to distribute the ballots anyway. When they refused, he fired the head of the armed forces, military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez.
This firing was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, which required that Vasquez be reinstated. Zelaya refused to comply. The Attorney General then asked Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Zelaya due to his blatant disregard for the country’s democratic laws. Undeterred, Zelaya assembled his supporters, who marched on the military base where the ballots were being stored. The military handed them over rather than risk a violent confrontation. Zelaya and his supporters then distributed the ballots, and local authorities were ordered to assemble polling stations nationwide. Against this background, there was every reason to think that Zelaya intended to install himself as a president-for-life in the mold of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
It was to avert that possibility that the coup took place. But even if strategically unwise, the coup cannot be called undemocratic – as it has been by many so world leaders, including President Obama. It was ordered by Congress and the Supreme Court, who felt Zelaya had to be removed for unconstitutionally acting in defiance of the other branches of power. In deposing Zelaya and exiling him to Costa Rica, the military merely enforced the law. Rather than form an undemocratic military regime, the President of the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as the country’s leader, as constitutionally required, and the presidential elections for November 29 are still planned to be held. In contrast to the country’s political direction under Zelaya, Honduras has not become a dictatorship.
All of this seems lost on President Obama. “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras,” Obama has said, insisting that it “would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.” Ironically, Obama has attacked the legitimacy of the new government in far harsher terms than he has challenged the legitimacy of the Iranian government. Never mind that one bases its legitimacy on a democratic coup and the other on a fraudulent election and the brutal repression of democratic protestors.
Obama is likely concerned about enflaming anti-Americanism in the region, but he should consider that his support for Zelaya plays into the wrong hands. Zelaya has been no friend of the United States or of democracy. He is an ally of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and under his rule, Honduras joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a socialist alliance of countries in Latin America that oppose the United States. He signed a declaration with Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Dominica calling the creation of “an alternative to the capitalist system,” blaming it for everything from famine, to disease, to global warming. “Capitalism is leading humanity and the planet to extinction,” the document read. He also lamented the “decades-long relationship of dominance by the United States.”
This latest crisis is not the only time Zelaya has been accused of undermining democracy. In a blatant attempt at censorship, he ordered television networks to broadcast government-produced news programs in response to alleged “misinformation” to which the public was being exposed.
One should not discount the possibility that the coup was a strategic mistake. Although their intentions were noble, the government and the military may have chosen the wrong way to deprive Zelaya of power. In particular, it may have been wiser to try to impeach Zelaya or to see how the presidential elections turned out, before taking more forceful action.
Still, the fact that the government may have erred in launching the coup without exhausting all other options does not justify the international reaction. Those critics who hail Zelaya as a pillar of democracy and the rule of law, and his opponents as vigilantes illegally seeking to suppress freedom, are making a grave mistake.