The Honduran constitutional crisis drags on. But why should anyone-other than Hondurans-care?
The latest controversy involved the postponement of a visit to by an Organization of American States (OAS) delegation to Tegucigalpa. After weeks of squabbling, both sides remain recalcitrant. Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is no closer to reinstatement, while the interim Honduran government remains isolated.
The political confrontation may be unsettling for Honduras, but it has had little impact on the United States. It is a good example of a foreign crisis which isn't even a problem in America. Washington's response should be helpful indifference. U.S. officials should offer to assist negotiations but avoid taking sides in a dispute in which America has nothing substantial at stake.
The controversy began when President Zelaya, whose term was to end in January, proposed a referendum to establish a National Constituent Assembly to amend the Honduran constitution. Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was suspected of planning to use the proposed gathering to overturn presidential term limits, though the referendum said nothing about the issue (and in any case it would have been virtually impossible for him to have run again this November).
The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that the poll was illegal. After Zelaya ignored the Court's decision and organized demonstrators to seize the ballots from the military base where they were stored, the Court issued a warrant for his arrest. At the Court's direction, the military roused him from his bed on June 28 and sent him into exile in Costa Rica. The National Congress replaced him, selecting the body's head, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president.
Zelaya denounced his ouster as a coup, though the military never took power and acted at the behest of civilian institutions. The Micheletti government insists that all of its actions, other than exiling Zelaya, were legal, and that exile was necessary for his protection and Honduras' security. Polls show a sharply divided population, with a narrow plurality opposing his ouster while agreeing that his actions legally justified his removal.
The current confrontation reflects deeper political divisions. In 2005 Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, was elected as the center-left candidate of the Liberal Party. He turned left-populist, allying himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Raul Castro. Wealthier Hondurans feared that he hoped to move towards autocracy, like in Venezuela, and even his own party-which dominated the Supreme Court and National Congress-turned against him. His poll ratings were hovering around 25 percent.
The controversy matters to Honduras, and few others. Honduras is a small nation in a region of small nations. It is relatively poor, with minimal impact on the international economy. The country possesses few national resources and has only limited military capabilities. Political instability is unlikely to generate many refugees. The dispute has no measurable impact on the United States.
Yet few issues of so little importance have generated so much heat in Washington. The battle lines formed early. President Barack Obama backed Zelaya. So have most left-leaning activists. In contrast, several conservative Republican legislators defended the interim government. So, too, did the Right and especially neoconservatives. Libertarian-minded writers divided. Everyone claimed the mantle of democracy while calling Zelaya either a devoted social reformer or a dangerous dictator wannabe.
Who's right? It's hard to say. Philip Giraldi of the American Conservative Defense Alliance may have put it best: "there is no clear good and bad in what happened in Honduras."
Without question, the Honduran constitution bars amendment via referendum of eight constitutional provisions, including term limits. However, does that provision apply to an advisory measure which does not directly address presidential tenure? Still, the Supreme Court made a clear and presumptively valid ruling, which bound the president. The National Congress and military should have ensured that the law was respected. Was his forcible removal by the military necessary? Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution states that anyone attempting to change the term limit "will immediately cease in their functions." Was it legitimate for the Court to decide that that is what he intended on doing in the future, even if he was not doing so today? If so, presumably he lost his office automatically. That still didn't necessarily warrant the military's bedtime arrest and exile, however.
What were Zelaya's plans? His intentions might have been malign, though Honduras is one of many countries where economic and political elites tend to help each other at the expense of the poor. Moreover, his critics had reason to worry that Zelaya hoped to follow the precedent created by Venezuela's Chavez, who has steadily dismantled legal restraints on presidential power and tenure, and eliminated protections for civil and political liberties. Nevertheless, suspicions alone provide a dubious basis for removing a president. Especially since Zelaya was constrained by the very institutions which removed him from power as well as his lack of popularity. Assume that his ouster was valid. His arrest and exile remain dubious. The latter certainly is extra-constitutional if not expressly illegal.