One of the things I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around in the Great Was-It-A-Coup?-Debate of 2009 is where the line between “legitimate transfer of power” and “coup” in this case lies. I’m willing accept the judgment by Latin Americanists of better repute than I (which would be all of them, since I really am not a Latin Americanist even though I live closer to Latin America than most it seems) that whatever happened is on the “coup” side of that line, but I wonder where the line itself was exactly. A few brief stabs at the threshold:
- Using the military. If the Supreme Court had ordered the civilian police to arrest and deport Zelaya, rather than the armed forces, and they had done so, would the events have still constituted a coup?
- The exile. Had the Supreme Court ordered the military to arrest and detain Zelaya, but not ship him off to Costa Rica, would the events have still been a coup?
- The combination of using the military and the exile.
- The lack of explicit text regarding how to deal with presidents exceeding constitutional authority. Had the Honduran Constitution stated who was responsible for removing politicians from office who supported a constitutional amendment (and who got to decide what proposals constituted such violations) that might lead to alterations of term limits on the presidency, would the events that transpired have still been a coup?
And a few brief stabs at what seem not to be the thresholds:
- Illegal actions by the president. Pretty much everyone except Zelaya seems to agree that his efforts to hold a referendum on constitutional change were not permissible under Honduran law; this is reinforced by the fact that another branch of government (the Congress) does have the power to propose such a referendum but chose not to. (One could make an argument that if no branch of government was assigned a legitimate governmental power not enumerated in the constitution, the executive might inherently have that power—but that clearly is not the case in this circumstance.)
- Support by other, accountable, civilian branches of government. Both the elected Congress and the Supreme Court have endorsed the transfer of power, apparently without any coercion by the military.
- Overwhelming popular opposition to the move. At best, the Honduran population seems fairly divided over whether or not Zelaya’s removal was legitimate.
In related news, Costa Rican president Óscar Arias has agreed to mediate the crisis with the consent of both Zelaya and the interim Honduran government.