I really don’t have any particular insight to add to others’ discussion of the sorta-kinda-maybe coup d’état in Honduras, but Steven Taylor (both here and here) and Greg Weeks have had some fairly insightful posts on the matter.
While I’d probably say that many Hondurans’ fears that maybe-ex-President Zelaya was plotting in some way to perpetuate his own rule at the expense of democratic accountability—as both Hugo Chávez and Álvaro Uribe have recently done in the broader region—were possibly justified, employing the military to raid his house and toss him on an airplane in the middle of the night doesn’t exactly strike me as the most measured response by the other branches of government. On the other hand I’ll gladly concede that the Honduran constitution appears to be a giant mess of epic proportions (amendment by decree and the lack of an impeachment mechanism being among its defects) that didn’t exactly help in avoiding an escalation of the situation to the use of extralegal means.
Elsewhere: John Carey (via John Sides) presents some data on extraordinary Latin American presidential replacements since 1990. It almost, but not quite, tempts me to dust off my old paper on stability and presidential government and add some new data, but I think it’s best for all involved if it just stays in Ukrainian, at least until I can find a
sucker graduate student interested in collecting the data to update the damn thing to the present.
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.
I think we can now reasonably call the Zelaya kerfuffle a coup d’état, if only for the simple reason that once men with guns start showing up at broadcasters getting them to shut off their signals, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re up to something beyond the realm of ordinary democratic politics.
Of course, that also means that Hugo Chávez’s concerted efforts to marginalize the private, pro-opposition broadcast and print media in Venezuela would be evidence in favor of his having pulled an autogolpe, albeit one with a hamfisted assist from the opposition’s ill-advised election boycott a few years back.
Regardless I am less inclined to read the tea leaves as saying that Chávez has lost interest in Zelaya’s cause as others, although I suspect by the time the whole business is settled (probably with an agreement to hold a referendum on a constituent assembly explicitly excluding the possibility of an amendment to allow presidential reelection) Zelaya’s term of office will have come to an end. At this point Zelaya can probably derive more value down the road in continuing to garner sympathy in continued exile through the election than in returning to Honduras’ presidency as a lame duck with virtually no support from Congress, the military, or the courts.
Update: Greg Weeks also points out that Chávez too probably “wins” more from Zelaya not returning to power, which would dovetail nicely with others’ observations that he is throwing Zelaya under the bus.