Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on Honduras

Well, I think it's fair to say that the recent actions taken by the current de facto government of Honduras under the leadership of Roberto Micheletti have exposed the authoritarian and autocratic inclinations of this usurper government. Many U.S. conservatives have supported the Micheletti government following its installation in the wake of the military coup against the controversial, but duly-elected left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya. They have argued that the ouster of Zelaya was constitutionally defensible in the wake of Zelaya's misbehavior (some would argue Zelaya's treason), and that the subsequent Micheletti government were each necessary to preserve freedom and democracy in Honduras. But now that the Micheletti government has unilaterally suspended civil rights and constitutional guarantees by shutting down opposition media outlets and by preventing rights to free assembly, all in the name of "order," its former supporters in the U.S. have now responded with a deafening silence. Since the Micheletti government showed its autocratic nature, there is simply no way that anyone can continue to argue that this government is acting out of a commitment to democracy and freedom. And lest anyone seek to argue that the Micheletti government is the better of two bad alternatives, I would simply point out that as manipulative as Zelaya might have been, he never responded to his opposition by suspending constitutional rights. His opponents were always free to speak out against him, to organize and protest his behavior, and to flood the airwaves and their print media outlets with their criticism. It is the Micheletti government that, when faced with the public expression of opposition in an organized and peaceful, but determined, fashion, resorted to the behavior of dictatorships.

Given recent events in Honduras, I'd like to revisit the whole context of this crisis and offer some of my own opinions which have been germinating for a while.

First, let me starty by suggesting that the situation in Honduras was and is not as clear-cut and black & white as folks either on the left or the right have made it. Here is some food for thought. First, regarding the original claim by the coup supporters that Zelaya was seeking to establish the mechanism for instituting a Hugo Chavez style dictatorship in his own country, I think it is important to note that Zelaya was not specifically attempting to extend his term of office. In fact, what gets obfuscated in the polemics, is that what Zelaya had actually proposed was to insert in the upcoming election a ballot measure that would have been a binding referendum on the Honduran people's opinion regarding support for calling a constitutional convention with the purpose of reviewing the constitution and perhaps proposing amendments to the constitution, one of which would have included the Constitutional provision that limited a President to one term in office. The Supreme Court ruling against Zelaya was that it was illegal for him even to propose a "binding" referendum. So Zelaya then changed the measure to be a "non-binding" resolution. Whether or not one thinks Zelaya was simply playing fast and loose with the intent of the Supreme Court's ruling is another question. (And I happen think Zelaya WAS playing fast and loose. But, hey, that's politics!) However, that said, in a country governed by the Rule of Law, the next step would have been for the Supreme Court to decide on the legality of this "non-binding" referendum. But they never got that far before the coup took place. Secondly, contrary to what is currently circulating among much of the uninformed punditocracy and blogosphere, the Honduran Supreme Court did not order Zelaya arrested and deported. That's simply an untruth. The Supreme Court declared Zelaya in violation of their original ruling and thus subject to arrest and a subsequent trial for this violation of the ruling. In other words, the Supreme Court basically declared Zelaya to be in contempt of court. What the Supreme Court did not do was to authorize any particular authority to arrest Zelaya. It did not call for the military to detain Zelaya. And it certainly did not order, nor did it condone, his unwilling exile from the country under force of arms. That was done unilaterally by the Honduran military with some vocal support by members of the Honduran Congress.

Second, the Honduran Constitution is unclear on who actually IS the proper authority to arrest a President accused of illegal activity and what is the proper way of bringing to trial a President so-accused. There is nothing in the Honduran Constitution that affords the Congress or the military any authority to act in the way that they did. In this regard, the Honduran Constitution really is a badly-flawed document. Neverthelss, the proper way to deal with this lack of clarity in such situations in a liberal democracy is not for the Congress to make a power grab, as it did, in its struggle with the Executive; but rather for Congress to legislate a process whereby a rogue President is brought to trial and formally impeached.

With regard to the formal U.S. government position on the coup, I would say that the this position is not one of being pro-Zelaya and anti-Supreme Court, as some critics of the U.S. response have argued, but rather one of being pro-democracy versus anti-democracy. Here's the thing: how "democratic" can a country be considered if there are articles of its constitution that are simply un-amendable? Heck, even the most hallowed articles of the U.S. Constitution are not presumed to be un-amendable. Popular sovereignty (i.e. government of the people, by the people, and for the people), not to mention freedom, requires that no constitutional provision be sacrosanct such that it is exempt always and everywhere, forever, from popular sanction and approval. Imagine if the framers of the U.S. Constitution had written a provision into the document that basically stated that only property-owning white males had the right to vote in elections and that this provision could never be amended or repealed, and that any effort to do so would amount to treason. That is, in essence, what the Honduran Constitution says about Presidential term limits. There is something to be said (and perhaps not all good) about the quality of Honduras's democracy and the nature of freedom under a constitution that cannot be amended in some parts and which parts are thus completely and utterly beyond the scrutiny of the people whom the Constitution serves.

Finally, I would always urge folks to think about what is proper conflict resolution between the co-equal branches of government in a liberal democracy. If we would not tolerate the manner of dealing with our own President in the way that Honduras has dealt with its own President, then there is an inconsistency within our own notions of what constitutes proper democratic governance. And when it is coupled with the idea that Honduras can't be expected to live up to the same standards of democratic governance that we in the U.S. would expect because Honduras is, after all, a third world banana republic, then this inconsistency is also very relativist, not to mention patronizing. We should always expect that our democratic allies would not simply have the military round up the country's President in his pajamas, force him into exile, and install a new government over the course of 24 hours. The question I keep asking folks who supported this coup: Would we tolerate this if it happened in our own country? Or in Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia, etc.? I doubt it. And why is that? The answer to this question is simple: we fashion ourselves as people more accustomed to dealing with such crises through a strict adherence to the Rule of Law and never through a reliance on the force of arms, much less through the use of the national military.

In short, if anyone supports a military ouster of a President, a President who was never given a fair trial under due process of the law with the right to mount a legal defense in a legitimate trial in front of a duly constituted jury, however that process might take shape, just because Honduras is a third-world basket case that doesn't know a better way to deal with such problems, then shame on you. We should expect more from our Democratic allies, and not settle for the REAL third world basket case solution (i.e. a military coup) that actually took place.

All this is not to say that I support Zelaya or even that I like the man. Frankly, I'm not much of a fan of his, nor do I think he's operating with any measure of sincerity himself. He certainly has demagogic and anti-democratic tendencies like Hugo Chavez. But, even still, I can't claim to be an advocate of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law if I accept the manner in which Zelaya, who, for better or for worse, was the duly-elected President of Honduras, was removed from office and thrown out of the country.

For a good summation of the case against the ouster of Zelaya on constitutional, and legal procedural grounds, go here.

1 comment:

April Eiswirth said...

The more I think about this crisis, the more I think Micheletti has destined Honduras for a hard few years. It will be near impossible to host a fair election there. For one, Micheletti has suspended civil rights. Plus, he has set the stage of threats and bribery of voting citizens. Some outside force like the UN will have to be in Honduras to monitor the elections.

I agree that the US is definitely not pro-Zelaya in their position. Besides him consistently attacking the US, I feel like we would definitely be throwing more support behind him if we really believed in his position. It is probably better this way anyway so that the Costa Rican president will be able to start negotiations without the huge powers of the world biased to one side.