A Smart Take on Honduras

Manuel Zelaya

Manuel Zelaya

Brookings’ Kevin Casas-Zamora offers up the brief-but-informative take on what happened in Honduras that I’ve been waiting for:

As other Latin American leaders, President Zelaya fell victim to the virus of presidential reelection, an institution with questionable pedigree in a region that has paid a dear price for its fondness of caudillos. The real problem, however, was that by organizing a de facto referendum to test the popularity of his idea, Zelaya pursued his ambition with total disregard of his country’s constitution. The latter explicitly forbids holding referenda—let alone an unsanctioned “popular consultation”—to amend the constitution and, more specifically, to modify the presidential term. Unsurprisingly, the president’s idea met with the resistance of Congress, nearly all parties (including his own), the press, business, electoral authorities, and, crucially, the Supreme Court, that deemed the whole endeavor illegal. Last week, when the President demanded the Armed Forces’ support to distribute the electoral material to carry out his “opinion poll,” the military commander refused to comply with the order, was summarily dismissed for his refusal, and later reinstated by the Supreme Court. The president then cited the troubling history of military intervention in Honduran politics, a past that the country—under more prudent governments—had made great strides in leaving behind in the past two decades. He forgot to mention that the order that he issued was illegal. […]

Now the Honduran military have responded in kind: an illegal referendum has met an illegal military intervention, with the avowed intention of protecting the constitution. Moreover, as has been so often the case, this intervention has been called for and celebrated by Zelaya’s civilian opponents. For the past week, the Honduran Congress has waxed lyrical about the armed forces as the guarantors of the constitution, a disturbing notion in Latin America. When we hear that, we can expect the worst. And the worst has happened. At the very least, we are witnessing in Honduras the return of the sad role of the military as the ultimate referee in the political conflicts amongst the civilian leadership, a huge step back in the consolidation of democracy.

His policy suggestion is that the United States and the Organization of American States should push for Zelaya to be reinstated. They point out that if Honduran civilians want to attempt to prosecute Zelaya through the civilian legal system, they can do that. One thing that I continue not to understand about this situation is does Honduras not have an impeachment mechanism through which congress can depose Zelaya? It seems to me that if the congress is inclined to go along with an anti-Zelaya military coup, there ought to have been some legal mechanism in place through which they could have changed presidents without subverting democracy.

As a more general point, my understanding of the evidence continues to be that parliamentary systems are less prone to constitutional crisis and breakdown. Latin America would do well to stop imitating us yankees and start imitating the vast majority of stable democracies. What’s more, for small countries like Honduras it seems to me that total demilitarization (à la Costa Rica) looks like a very attractive option.