When is a coup not a coup?

The defenders of acting Honduran president Roberto Micheletti have put together as close to a coherent argument as possible, I suppose, that sending soldiers into the president's bedroom and rousting him out of bed and out of the country is not a coup, but a constitutional democratic act.

They may have a point, that President Manuel Zelaya was flouting the constitution (by calling for a constitutional referendum without approval of the established organs). Presidents tend to do that whenever they can get away with it, even in places with sturdier institutions (I'm thinking of G. W. Bush and Guantánamo, etc., but there are plenty of other examples). But then, who wasn't flouting the constitution? Where in the Honduran constitution does it say that the Supreme Court is authorized to send in the army to oust the president?

The Honduran constitution needed, and needs, reform. Zelaya's problem with it was that it was designed to keep economic and political power in the hands of the old elites, in part because of the stacking of the Supreme Court and other obstacles, and so limited his powers to reform the economy. The political right's problem with it was that, while it was designed to protect the privileged, it didn't contemplate any serious challenge from a democratically elected president (the right was hoping to control and limit elections as they always had), and so had no mechanism for impeachment. They expected constitutional interpretation always to be malleable to their wishes, especially since they control the Supreme Court.

Joaquín Villalobos was right when he wrote a few weeks ago that the weakness and instability of Central American governments is by historical design, beginning with independence and the division of the region (under the influence of Great Britain and the U.S. subsequently) into five (or six if we count Panama, seven if we also count English-speaking Belize) little states, each intended to be too weak to buck outside economic or political pressure. Except when they do. And even when at great cost a popular movement has struggled to victory or at least stalemate vis à vis the local oligarchy, as in Nicaragua or El Salvador, they still are poor and vulnerable.

The solution will be a long time coming. It will have to be some sort of economic and political union, not necessarily fusion into a single Central American state but mechanisms of cooperation with other countries within or beyond the region. The need for such larger support is of course what impelled Zelaya's groping for Hugo Chávez's outstretched hand. Whereas the Honduran oligarchy preferred the U.S.'s impending boot.

Meanwhile, we have to insist that military intervention to solve political disputes is unacceptable. Isolating this regime by cutting off trade, aid and political contacts seems to me like the best policy, to encourage other democratic forces within Honduras. And we may hope that whatever leadership emerges will be less clumsy than Mel Zelaya, and that it will have created more space for reform by changing the Supreme Court and other institutions. In short, there's no easy solution, but this crisis can be the prelude to needed reforms.

YouTube - Union Civica Democratica -- July 4 -- Democracy Alive and Strong Because The Constitution Works

1 comment:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

Thanks for this thoughtful elucidation of a this seemly simple but of course complex issue.