Democracy is the Real Victim in Honduras' Coup

By Ashley Morse 07-02-2009

090701-honduras-coup-2On the morning of June 28, Honduran President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was awoken suddenly as masked soldiers burst into his home. As the media has been rave to point out, still in his pajamas, the elected head of state was forced onto a plane and shipped out of the country. Later that day, the Honduran congress overwhelmingly elected its speaker Roberto Michiletti, a member of Zelaya's own Liberal Party, as the country's new president. The event was a chilling reminder that the days of military coups in Latin America are not quite over.

In the wake of Sunday's events there has ensued a battle of interpretation both within Honduras and in the international community, in which the greatest point of contention is the basis of legality for the removal of President Zelaya and whether or not it was in fact a coup.

The main reason given by the Micheletti government for the ousting of the president was his move to put forth a non-binding referendum on installing an additional urn in November's federal elections where the population would vote on whether or not to establish a National Assembly to reform the constitution. Many critics allege that Zelaya was in fact hoping to reform the constitution to allow him (and future Honduran presidents), to run for a second term. Other analysts point to the urgent need to reform the far from perfect Honduran constitution, which was written after civilians gained control of the government from the military in 1982. The Supreme Court ruled Zelaya's referendum to be illegal and the military refused to help him administer the vote. Nevertheless, Zelaya decided to go forward with the referendum and was poised to do so until the military forcibly removed him the morning that the vote was scheduled.

While there are many discussions about whether Zelaya's actions were legal, and his popularity may be indeed be demonstrably low, this does not justify the military's storming of the presidential palace and forceful removal of the president. The fact that part of the population may be happy to be rid of Zelaya is utterly beside the point; a coup is a coup and that breach of legality is one which we mustn't brush over.

The Honduran Constitution, with all of its shortcomings, does in fact provide for a legal removal of a president, democratically, by impeachment, not by a military ambush. The bottom line is that democratic institutions and the processes therein that administer transitions of power must be safeguarded to effectively govern and ensure individual rights. A long and unfortunate history of military coups in the region that kept democratic institutions perpetually weak has at least taught us this much.

Understanding the extremely complex political milieu in Honduras must take into account the frustration of the poor majority due to their exclusion from what is still a very young, tenuous, and splintered democracy. The question now becomes where does Honduras go from here? The international community has united in its response that the first step is to right the initial wrong of ousting the democratically-elected president through a coup. But Zelaya's return to the presidency will in no way put an end to the institutional weaknesses and political divisions in Honduras, nor to the political marginalization and economic inequalities that underlie this crisis. Any steps forward will certainly require the accompaniment and support of the international community, but in the end it will be up to the Honduran people to address these deeply-seated issues and determine the future of their democracy.

Ashley Morse is a program assistant with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S. human rights organization that promotes democracy and socio-economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean through analysis and foreign policy proposals informed by strong partnerships with civil society counterparts in the region.

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