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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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.