The Magazine

Comrades in Arms

The Honduran 'coup' is a victory for constitutionalism and a setback for Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The streets of Honduras's capital have been filled with two groups of marchers and protesters in the weeks since June 28. That was the day that president José Manuel "Mel" Zelaya Rosales was removed from power by an order of the supreme court, arrested by the army, and sent into exile in Costa Rica. The national congress later voted almost unanimously to accept Zelaya's resignation, a resignation Zelaya denies having signed. On most days now, there are demonstrations on behalf of "civil society." Businessmen, women's groups, and church groups assemble, dressed in white. They call for "democracy and peace" and praise their country's institutions for having stood up to a democratically elected president who tried to destroy the constitution and set himself up as a strongman.

There are also demonstrations by the Melistas. These are a combination of trade unionists, young political activists, and poor people. In these protests, most of the participants wear red and excoriate the new government for having plotted a golpe, or coup d'état. The white marches tend to be better attended than the red ones--when he was ousted, Zelaya was the least popular leader in Latin America--but the red marches are having more effect. They are meant to block main roads into the city for hours at a time. They result sometimes in a lot of smashed glass and always in a spectacular efflorescence of graffiti. There are insults to the cardinal, the head of the army, and the current president, Roberto Micheletti, the former president of the congress, whom the red protesters call (following a joke by the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez) "Goriletti" or "Pinocheletti." There are elaborate stenciled caricatures and simple statements like: "Golpistas out!"

Written in big letters on the national stadium on the edge of downtown Tegucigalpa last week was a red slogan that summed up the stakes of the controversy: Nuestro Norte es en el Sur, "Our north is in the south." El Norte has generally meant the United States, the economic, military and social behemoth of the hemisphere. Zelaya's people now look south to Hugo Chávez's Venezuela as their preferred hegemon and model. Chávez, who staged a bloody failed coup in Caracas in 1992, took power democratically in 1998. Through a series of referenda and enabling acts, and the crafty use of Venezuela's oil revenues, he has managed to dismantle the country's democracy from within and alter the constitution in such a way that he can rule until the decade after next.

Chávez has acted abroad with similar resourcefulness. When he arrived in power, he was Fidel Castro's lone declared ally in Latin America. Now he stands at the head of a "Bolivarian" bloc called ALBA, which includes the Bolivia of Evo Morales, the Ecuador of Rafael Correa, the Nicaragua of Daniel Ortega, the Cuba of Raúl Castro, and--from last summer until a few weeks ago--the Honduras of Mel Zelaya. It was the belief that Zelaya was in the course of following Chávez's antidemocratic model, summoning mobs into the streets and trying to hold an illegal election, that prompted the legislature to call for his arrest. Zelaya has not renounced power. His aides have threatened to fight if negotiations do not succeed in regaining the presidency for him. Chávez has mentioned invading Honduras. What is discomfiting to Hondurans--a plurality of whom favor Zelaya's ouster--is that the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the United States all have taken the side of Chávez.

Zelaya comes from a prominent cattle-ranching family in the rural state of Olancho. His father has the reputation of having been a brute during the Honduran dictatorships of the 1970s. When Zelaya came to power, he was considered a sort of Central American George W. Bush. He affects cowboy hats and is reckless, simpático, and homespun. Tegucigalpa, like Washington, favors politicians who are listo--witty, brilliant, quick on their feet--and he is nothing of the sort. He is easily underestimated. "How is it," says one former U.S. diplomat in the region, "that this guy who's not so smart has, even as a lame duck, dominated political discourse, scared the hell out of the economic establishment, and spooked out the whole middle class?"

Political parties are not very ideological in Honduras. Zelaya came to power as a centrist member of the Liberal party, which has dominated Honduran politics since the end of the Cold War. Zelaya had always been preoccupied with the poor, who are numerous in Honduras, and had done a lot of good things for them. As head of the government social-services agency under two Liberal governments, he built latrines, health centers, and schools, not to mention a network of enthusiasts. By the time he got to power he was skilled at setting up town hall meetings in local villages and using local radio effectively. He made school lunch programs and mobile clinics a priority. He raised the minimum wage from $170 to $270 a month. (Which probably drove up unemployment, but that is a different argument.)

His government was also credibly alleged to be corrupt. The national budget was supposed to be passed by September 2008, but that never happened. So the Zelaya government has worked in cash. Starting in 2007, certain federal aid to municipalities--including millions meant to be channeled through a national program called the Reduction of Poverty Strategy--stopped coming, according to Mayor Manuel Torres of Valle de Angeles. Since Zelaya's departure, the new government has released bank videotapes showing his top aide, Enrique Flores Lanza, removing money, allegedly 40 million lempiras ($2 million), from the Central Bank on a little rolling cart. Transparency International ranks Honduras 126th of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index.

Although some diplomats were alarmed at Zelaya's seeming obsession with getting the United States to vacate its air base at Palmerola (an obsession he shared with Hugo Chávez), no one paid much attention to him for his first two years in power. But in 2007 he suddenly, as one Honduran journalist put it, became the president "of some, not all, Hondurans." He began to attack the rich, the Organization of American States, and the "Empire" to the north. Most people attributed his new stridency to the sway of two people. First was Patricia Rodas Baca, the brilliant and beautiful leftist adviser whom Zelaya would make his foreign minister. Rodas, the daughter of a revered Liberal statesman, had spent much of her youth in Sandinista Nicaragua and part of her education in Cuba. She helped draw Zelaya into a closer attachment to his second big influence, Hugo Chávez.

In the spring of 2008, Zelaya brought Honduras into PetroCaribe, a deal whereby Chávez offers deep discounts and generous financing for the oil and gas Venezuela exports. That was Chávez's foot in the door, and his influence grew preponderant almost overnight. Venezuela now holds more than a third of Honduras's foreign debt. In August 2008, Zelaya proposed bringing Honduras into ALBA, Chávez's "alternative" to U.S. trade pacts. What is curious about this is that Honduras was able to negotiate and sign this agreement without ever being worried that its trade relations with the United States under the Central American Free Trade Agreement would be jeopardized. Apparently the Bush administration was done by that point with demanding answers to the question of whether you're with us or against us.

ALBA is a highly ideological organization. "It wasn't a free-trade agreement, with norms and that sort of thing," one Tegucigalpa businesswoman told me. "It was a devil's pact with Venezuela." A lot of strange stuff came up in negotiations that Hondurans did not understand--mentions of military cooperation, for instance, although that part was not ratified. Unease over the agreement led the National party, Honduras's main opposition party, to boycott the vote on ratifying the ALBA treaty. But the Liberals managed to squeak it through. They were led by Micheletti, who--just to let you see how complicated the political arrangements are--was one of Zelaya's close political allies at the time. Martha Lorena Casco, a Liberal who had campaigned with Zelaya in 2005 and is now a member of Micheletti's government, was the only member of her party to vote against it. She said, "ALBA is Chávez and Chávez is ALBA."

Chávez came to Honduras for the signing of the ALBA treaty. He accused Honduran businessmen of selling out their country, and called them "piti-yanquis," which is apparently some kind of insult if you're Venezuelan. Zelaya said, "Honduras did not ask permission from any imperialist country to join ALBA." Back in the late 1980s, international opinion counted it a big threat to Honduras's national autonomy when U.S. military aid rose to $77 million at the end of Ronald Reagan's first term. Recently the think tank CIECA, based in the Dominican Republic, estimated that Venezuela had spent $624 million in public funds in Honduras in the last year and a half. Yet one hears surprisingly few complaints about a foreign power using its wealth to bend a small and vulnerable Central American state to its will.

Except, of course, in Honduras itself. There, Zelaya grew steadily less popular. His approval ratings fell well below 30 percent. Despite that, in March he called for a referendum on holding a constitutional convention, a tactic straight out of the Venezuelan playbook. As the Mexican historian Enrique Krauze puts it in his authoritative book on Chávez, The Power and the Delirium, this playbook means achieving revolutionary ends through nonrevolutionary means:

The fidelista Chávez understood (or was made to understand) something truly new: He could take power through the democratic order in which he didn't believe, under its own rules, by means of a plebiscite, in order to then eviscerate it, dominate it, and build--once and for all--a revolutionary order.

The plebiscitary route would conceivably permit Zelaya to stay in office longer than the four months he had left to him. This, indeed, was what most Hondurans expected, should the vote pass. Zelaya's planned referendum was unconstitutional. So he renamed it a "poll." But that did not solve the constitutional problem. For a president to reopen constitutional questions this way is the Honduran equivalent of what in America would be called a high crime. This is perhaps the least understood part of the episode, and a bit of constitutional background is necessary.

Honduras has had 17 constitutions. The present one, written in 1982, has lasted longer than any of the others. Like the German Basic Law of 1949, it was written in the wake of a catastrophic episode of authoritarianism (in Honduras the episode was a series of military coups), and it contains a lot of inefficient-looking checks designed to make a repetition of that catastrophe impossible. One of these checks is term limits. Another is a clear placing of authority to alter the constitution with the legislative branch. And there are a handful of "articulos petreos"--articles of the constitution that are deemed written in stone. Even to propose altering them can be grounds for removal from office.

The supreme court twice declared the planned referendum or poll unconstitutional and illegal. Zelaya ordered television stations to continue to run public service announcements and ads for it anyway, assuring them that "he" (the government? Chávez?) would pay their fines. When the ballots, which were printed in Venezuela, arrived in the country, the court ordered them confiscated. They were held on a military base at the airport. Zelaya fired the commander in chief of the armed forces who had obeyed the court order. The court ruled this act unconstitutional, too. Zelaya gathered a mob of 300 people, led them into the base, loaded thousands of the ballots onto a truck, and drove them away. The supreme court ordered Zelaya arrested. The armed forces carried out the arrest on the morning the poll was to take place and flew Zelaya to Costa Rica. Then the legislature voted to oust him.

Was this a coup? It certainly had some of the elements of a coup--the decision to expatriate Zelaya rather than taking him to jail has been criticized even by supporters of the Micheletti government. In the days after the arrest, an 11 P.M.-4 A.M. curfew was imposed, and there was a blackout of some news media on the following Sunday, when Zelaya attempted (and failed) to reenter the country by plane. But otherwise, his removal was carried out quite constitutionally. Although it doesn't affect the rightness or wrongness of his removal, it is worth noting that, until a very late stage, Hondurans were uncertain whether the army would obey the supreme court's orders or defy the court by backing Zelaya. A case can be made, of course, that it was Zelaya who was attempting a coup of the sort, familiar through Latin American history, in which a president converts himself into a president-for-life. The constitutional articles Zelaya fell afoul of were the very ones meant to impede coups.

What makes the "international community" deaf to this narrative? A couple of things. One is that Latin American constitutions are not big on process. The Honduran constitution is democratic, it specifies a separation of powers (which stood up impressively to a headstrong executive), and for 27 years it has effectively prevented coups in one of the most coup-prone corners of the planet. But it does not have an impeachment process, and this made it seem natural to send the army to do a policeman's job. This is a flaw. But when I mentioned it to Henry Merriam, the former mayor of Tegucigalpa and a leader of the Civic Democratic Union (the white-shirted demonstrators), he replied, "We made one mistake. Now the rest of the world is going to make us pay with our freedom."

Another source of disrespect for the constitutional case against Zelaya is that the constitution has often been honored in the breach. Defenders of Zelaya say that his opponents have become constitutionalists only out of convenience. One top official in his government made a point similar to the one Merriam made: "This is the people who own the country taking advantage of a mistake to remove a democratically elected president they didn't like."

Both sides also draw precedents from other countries to justify their positions. Zelaya's opponents note that when Jorge Serrano was removed under similar circumstances in Guatemala in 1993, or when Lucio Gutiérrez was ousted from Ecuador in 2002, there were no outcries from the world's bien-pensants, possibly because neither Serrano nor Gutiérrez was a tribune of leftist revolution. Zelaya's defenders say that the United States ought not take the case against him too seriously, since in 2004 it winked at a similar amendment of the constitution to avoid term limits by lvaro Uribe of Colombia.

A plurality of Hondurans (41 percent) are happy about the ousting of Zelaya, according to a local poll, while a quarter (28 percent) oppose it. The cardinal of Tegucigalpa, scar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga (who has been rumored a likely pope), has called on Zelaya not to come back, for fear of sparking a "bloodbath." Ramón Custodio López, a leftist from the days of the contras who has been Honduras's human rights commissioner for many years, doesn't think he should come back either.

Honduras, which is (after Nicaragua) the second-poorest country in Central America, is not out of the woods. It is about to come under serious economic pressure. Chávez has shut off the oil he had been sending. Honduras can survive that. It can probably survive the decrease in remittances from the global economic downturn, too, even though these have come to make up 30 percent of its GNP in recent years. What it cannot survive is isolation from its main trading partners, starting with the United States.

Understanding this weakness, Chávez has sought to bring the United States into a more active role on his side. He began by openly urging President Obama to do something, a bizarre role for a critic of U.S. imperialism. In recent days, he has said, "It was the Department of State that did this coup, I don't have the slightest doubt." Given that the U.S. ambassador in Honduras provided security for Zelaya's family in the days after the coup, this would seem an unlikely accusation. According to one report late this week, Chávez believes the State Department did its supposed dirty work without informing Barack Obama.

Zelaya and his supporters are now pursuing, rhetorically at least, a two-track strategy: They will return either as the darlings of the "pro-democracy" movement or through violence. Zelaya continues negotiating in Costa Rica with that country's ex-president, the Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias. According to Arias, "the reestablishment of constitutional order passes through the restitution of President José Manuel Zelaya." If the talks don't work, Zelaya says, "we will proceed with other methods." He notes that the Honduran constitution contains a "right to rebellion." Rodas in Bolivia on Thursday said Zelaya was on his way back into Honduras, where he would set up a rallying point for the "final battle." It sounds like a kind of Central American Republic of Salò.

It is hard to resist the sense that this international-norms-of-democracy rhetoric is turning into the great tool for democracy's overthrow. In the case of Honduras, people crow about the rule of law but start from the assumption that only one of the country's branches--the executive, the caudillo--has any democratic legitimacy. The other branches--the supreme court, the congress--are assumed to have only a banana-republic simulacrum of legitimacy. The present Honduran government is making every effort to explain itself transparently to the international community. The Zelaya government-in-exile is trying to bully the international community into bringing it back to power.

Zelaya adopted unpopular policies, threatened the interests of the powerful, and shaded the truth. All politicians do those things. They are not grounds for removal. But Zelaya was not removed for doing those things. He was removed for violating the constitution--not accidentally but out of a willful desire to subvert it. Imagine a two-term American president sending mobs to confiscate ballots for a national "opinion poll" on the 22nd Amendment--the one that limits presidents to two terms--that he had personally decided to hold and that the supreme court had declared illegal. What civilized government would permit such behavior from its head of state? The democracy that Zelaya's partisans are asking the world to restore is not "democracy" in any sense that people would have considered worthy of the name before Hugo Chávez arrived on the scene.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West has just been published.