Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obama, let Honduras sort out its own problems

President Obama has yet again erred in his policies; this time however, his ignorance of international events threatens to impose a possible dictatorship on Honduras.

On June 30th, President Obama declared “that the United States still considers Manuel Zelaya to be the president of Honduras and assailed the coup that forced him into exile as ‘not legal’.”
"It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections," Obama continued. "The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past."

This sounds very good, but it appears that Obama, who hesitated for over a week to make any comments following the electoral crisis in Iran, has decided to impetuously plunge into Honduran internal affairs without analyzing the situation first. I believe that his rash involvement is a way of differentiating himself from President Bush who, after the 2002 overthrow of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, remained conspicuously silent and was accused of “winking his approval” to the Venezuelan military that overthrew Chavez.

Recent Latin American history is rich with coups. The 2002 coup in Venezuela was a direct result of Chavez’s abuse of power over weeks leading up to a massive protest march on April 11th. Chavez declared that he would organize a “counter march” that he would address at the Presidential Palace. When the opposition asked for permission to march to the palace, Chavez declared that only his supporters had a right to go there. The unarmed masses deviated from the original course and headed toward the Palace. At that moment, Chavez ordered a “cadena” (a mandatory broadcast of his discourse on all radio and television channels), effectively blocking coverage of the march. He also ordered his generals to declare “Plan Avila”, a military defense of the Palace designed to protect the President from an armed attack. The generals explained that the unarmed masses would be slaughtered, that the march was legal and peaceful, and that it would be illegal to enact Plan Avila. Chavez reiterated the order, which was refused. So Chavez then went on television calling on his supporters to “defend the Revolution with blood, if necessary”, an invocation of violence that again violated Venezuelan law. When his supporters began firing into the unarmed crowd (killing 20), the generals rebelled and arrested Chavez. Chavez eventually was freed and was returned to power by other generals supportive of his revolution. The international community at the time ignored Chavez’s crimes and his invocation of violence upon unarmed citizens.

In 2005, Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez had managed to isolate himself from his own party and grew increasingly abusive of his powers. He had initially run as a leftist, but slowly began to moderate and ally himself with the United States. He responded violently to the civil unrest, increasing popular dissent. The socialists within the National Assembly, who were friendly to Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, declared that Gutierrez should be stripped of the presidency for “abandonment of his post”. The military declared that they did not support Gutierrez, who was forced to flee the country. The international community was remarkably silent about these events. No one questioned the legality of the process, even when Gutierrez later complained to the OAS and UN that he was the victim of an illegal coup.

So now we must look into the events leading up to the Honduran coup.

Zelaya, who is another socialist ally of Hugo Chavez, was limited by the Honduran constitution to just one term, chose to follow the example of Chavez, who changed the constitution once to allow himself two terms, and now wants to modify it to give himself possibility of “indefinite reelection.” Zelaya wanted to form a “constituyente”, an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The Honduran Constitution allows for modification by constituyente, but Zelaya didn’t have the supported needed to do it the legal way. So instead, he decided he would do it himself, via popular referendum, and ordered ballots made by Chavez’s government.

The Honduran Supreme Court declared the process a violation of the constitution and therefore illegal. Zelaya mocked the court, and publicly called for insurrection, to which a mob of his supporters responded.

Zelaya then ordered his friend and Military Chief, Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, to help him proceed with the referendum. But the Supreme Court had been very specific: the planned referendum was illegal, and anyone who continued with it violated the law. Vásquez Velásquez was later quoted as saying: “Friendship ends where duty begins…Sadly, we could not disobey the order of the court.” He refused the order.

Infuriated by Vásquez Velásquez’s refusal to obey his (illegal) order, Zelaya relieved him of duty.

The Attorney General, Luis Rubí, declared that firing Vásquez Velásquez was also illegal. “You cannot fire an officer for refusing to obey an illegal order. No one can be punished for obeying the law…The President cannot be above the law, and his actions expose him to be subject to what the law demands.”

The Supreme Court ordered that Vásquez Velásquez be reinstated. Zelaya refused. And three more military generals, of various branches of service, resigned in protest.

Attorney General Rubí declared on Channel 5 television: “No one can capriciously destabilize the country. He cannot just do what he wants. We won’t permit (Zelaya) to continue undermining Democracy.”

But Zelaya miscalculated the depth of his support, and declared that he would personally carry on with the referendum. The Supreme Court declaration was clear: to do so was illegal and a violation of the constitution. The military assessed the situation and decided that Zelaya had to be removed from his position.

How Zelaya ended up leaving the country is still unclear. The military say he resigned, Zelaya denies this. (The exact same thing happened with Chavez; the military said he resigned under pressure, Chavez said he never signed anything.)

The Supreme Court issued a formal statement on June 29th, explaining that the action by the Honduran military was in accordance with Honduran law and was in defense of the constitution.
The Spanish legal-ease is a fairly difficult to translate to English, but in essence it says: “The Supreme Court issued an order to the Armed Forces last Friday, June 26, so that, because of the disobedience of the Executive Branch, the military take control of all of the poll {my note: or “referendum”} materials that would be used for that activity which had been declared illegal previously. This decision gave the Armed Forces the authorization so that, with the intervention of the attorneys of the Public Ministry, they proceed to prevent the illegal poll promoted by the Executive Power, who never responded to the orders emanated by the Constitution and Law.

The Judicial Power considers that their actions were realized within the legal margins. The Court also believes that the Armed Forces, as defenders of the Constitution, have acted in defense of the Will of Law, and forced those who previously publicly disobeyed the law and Constitution to submit to the law.”

Now, whether or not the Honduran Supreme Court interpreted the Honduran Constitution correctly should and will be a subject of intense study and heated debate—within Honduras. But it is astonishing that President Obama, in a matter of a couple of days, somehow has already and unilaterally determined that the steps taken were “illegal”. What’s more, despite the fact that just last week Obama repeatedly declared that the United States would not meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, he suddenly decided that the United States is perfectly capable of interfering in the internal affairs of Honduras.

Obama is wrong to rush in and support Zelaya, who had clearly, publicly and repeatedly violated Honduran laws and disobeyed orders by the Supreme Court to rectify his actions. Zelaya's beligerence, his calls to his supporters to form an insurrection, threatened the peace and stability of the nation. And if the military restore order, and if the interrim President Michelleti keeps his promise to allow elections to go forward in seven months, as scheduled, then Honduras will have resolved its own problems without outside interference.

Obama should instead focus his attention on the threats by Hugo Chavez to invade the country or support an armed insurrection there.

No comments: