It is extraordinary to see the Obama Administration — backed by establishment liberal papers like the Washington Post and New York Times — urging democratic Honduras to accept at least the temporary reinstatement of ousted president Manuel Zelaya.
Hondurans should ignore this advice.
Zelaya was ousted because he sought to alter the Honduran Constitution in order to enable him to run for a further term as president. This was illegal, because Article 4 of the Constitution limits the president to one four-year term. Article 4 in turn is subject to a constitutional prohibition on its alteration contained in Article 239, which states that “whoever changes or attempts to change” it “will be immediately removed from public office.”
It was precisely this constitutional prohibition that Zelaya violated last May when he tried to initiate a referendum to change Article 4. Article 42, Section 5 says that anyone who is found to “incite, promote, or aid in the continuation or re-election of the President” faces loss of citizenship. Under the Constitution, therefore, Zelaya appears entitled to neither the presidency nor even Honduran citizenship.
Zelaya’s illegal attempt to stay in power defied not only the Constitution but also the Honduran Congress, his own ruling Liberal Party, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the unanimous opinion of the country’s 15-member Supreme Court (eight of whose members are Liberal Party appointees). The military had no role in his ouster beyond carrying out the instructions of the civilian authorities to arrest and deport him.
Thus, only when Zelaya had illegally distributed ballots illicitly imported from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela for holding his prohibited referendum, did the Supreme Court duly authorize his removal from office for contravening Article 239 and his own attorney-general call for his arrest.
As prescribed in the Constitution, his place was taken by the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti. Micheletti — maligned as a “coup leader” by Zelaya apologists — has confirmed that the elections due in November will be held.
Yet the Obama Administration still regards Zelaya as president, and stigmatizes his removal from office as a “military coup” and “illegal” when it was neither.
So upon what grounds can the Obama Administration urge even the temporary return of Zelaya to office? We don’t know — the legal opinion on Zelaya’s ouster prepared by the top State Department lawyer, Harold Koh, has not been released, according to Republican senator Jim DeMint, who fruitlessly requested to peruse it already prior to visiting Honduras earlier this month. But we do know that the legal opinion prepared by the Directorate for Legal Research at the Law Library of Congress fully supports the legality and constitutionality of Zelaya’s removal from office.
Accordingly, how would violation of Article 239, as effectively demanded by the Obama Administration, help, in Obama’s words, to “support democratic traditions”?
Admittedly, Zelaya’s deportation (as distinct from his deposition) was legally controversial if not illegal. Yet, by itself, that fact provides no legal or moral foundation for his reinstatement as president. The most that can be reasonably argued is that he should be allowed to return to the country, which Zelaya in any case did by stealth last month. (He is currently in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, holed up in the Brazilian embassy). Moreover, his deportation could perhaps be justified by a paramount concern to preserve the country from constitutional dismemberment coupled with Chavez-style orchestrated unrest.
Fears of such unrest are not groundless. In 2003, orchestrated unrest in Bolivia by Chavez allies like Evo Morales succeeded in tipping out a lawful (and law-abiding) president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Today, Morales sits in his place. Chavez himself was clever enough to consolidate political forces in the Venezuelan Congress before seeking (and receiving) enhanced and extended power. He also prudently stacked the courts and purged the military before making his move. Zelaya did not — but the Chavistas and the Obama Administration are doing their best to make up for his carelessness.
Meanwhile, Zelaya surrogates are negotiating with Honduran presidential aspirants (of whom Micheletti is not one) on ending the crisis. This “Guaymuras Dialogue,” as it has been termed, involves proposed constitutional and economic concessions to Zelaya in return for his “renunciation” of the presidency. But “renunciation” concedes an entitlement on Zelaya’s part to an office from which he is now legally debarred and whose powers he no longer exercises.
To make such concessions to Zelaya in return for his renouncing his former office smacks of the Nicaraguan piñata, whereby Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas plundered literally billions of dollars worth of private property and state assets before relinquishing power after electoral defeat in 1990. As Ortega himself said, it permitted him to continue “ruling from below.”
Nicaragua allowed that and Ortega is now back in office. Honduras should avoid a similar experience. Who knows what legal and other devices would be put in place by Zelaya if he were reinstated to serve out the remainder of his presidential term in January?
The Honduran Constitution, being a democratic one, does not derive its legitimacy from that fickle commodity known as “international opinion.” It is not for even democratic governments to second-guess the constitutional arrangements of a fellow democracy, though Honduras is entitled to their support, which it has thus far been shamefully denied. Yet the question remains whether Honduras, buffeted by international, including American, sanctions, can withstand the pressure which is affecting its fragile economy.
At present, the parties to the Guaymuras Dialogue report progress, but no movement on the key, constitution-junking Zelaya demand — his reinstatement until January. Whether the U.S. sticks with its standing threat of not recognizing Honduran elections in the absence of an agreement remains to be seen. If the U.S. does, it will have parted company from a long-standing policy of supporting free and fair elections in the region.
Calling for Zelaya’s reinstatement does not promote democracy or order, but their subversion. In the name of the principles the Obama Administration claims to hold dear, it should rescind its call for Zelaya’s reinstatement.