Tuesday, June 30, 2009


If there is a no-brainer, when it comes to knowing what to think about events in small Central America countries, it is that military coups are bad. And elected governments are good.

So the forced exile of Honduran president Mel Zelaya was bad, right? Well, as my daughter says when she is asked to explain bold behavior, it's complicated.

Roberto Micheletti, who has been sworn in as Honduras's new president, says there was not a golpe, as a coup d'état is called in Spanish. And his assertion is defensible. The military was basically operating on instructions from the Honduran Supreme Court when it rousted Zelaya from his bed and put him on a flight to Costa Rica. Now there's some serious judicial activism for you.

Imagine if George Bush had decided that he wanted a third term as president and decided to hold a referendum calling a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution to get rid of that pesky 22nd Amendment. Now someone might challenge that action because the president cannot initiate constitutional convention on his own. (This is true in the Honduran constitution as well as the U.S. one. In Honduras, such a referendum has to be called by the congress.) Suppose that the Supreme Court ruled that the president was violating his authority by going ahead with the referendum anyway and that the attorney general agreed. Suppose that the people who would normally carry out the election refused because of the rulings from the Supreme Court and the attorney general. Suppose that Bush then led a group of his supporters to the warehouse where the referendum ballots were stored, had them break in and then distribute the ballots to voters. (In the Honduran case, the ballots just happened to be printed in Venezuela.) What would happen next?

In such a scenario in the U.S., presumably the Congress would impeach the president. In Honduras, the military put the president on a plane out of the country, the congress met in emergency session and designated the next in line of succession, according to the constitution, as the new president. Civilians are still in charge of the government. Presidential elections in November are still on schedule. This was not a golpe in the sense that the military seized control of the government from civilians, suspended the constitution and began ruling by decree. Arguably, the military intervened only as much as necessary so that the requirements of the constitution could be carried out.

In journalistic shorthand, however, U.S. and international radio and TV reports summarized the situation by saying Honduras had had a military coup. Since Zelaya is a political ally of Hugo Chavez (who printed the ballots for him), it is not surprising that Venezuela and Cuba condemned the military action and demanded that Zelaya be returned to power. But so did the president of Argentina and the head of the Organization of American States. And so did Barack Obama. If ever there was a moment for Obama to react to international events with his usual, initial, wishy-washy, on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand, neither-side-is-perfect approach, this was it. Instead, he followed the Chavez line and endorsed the fellow who was illegally trying to change the constitution to suit his own political ambitions.

Strangely, Obama's own secretary of state took a more balanced, realistic point of view, being careful to avoid the word "coup" because it would automatically trigger legal repercussions for Honduras. Among pundits, Mara Liasson, of National Public Radio, had the most interesting take on the administration's attitude. She suggested that the U.S. government was happy to have Zelaya out of power but didn't want to say so publicly for p.r. reasons. Lovely. An administration that says one thing and believes another.

It would be nice if Obama and crew got some clarity on the right and wrong of this situation and spoke and acted, accordingly. With regional support for Zelaya growing and Venezuela threatening its own military intervention, Obama's desire to look cool to the Latin American left might be just enough encouragement to tilt things in Zelaya's favor. And so far, Honduras's military seems to have had more respect for the rule of law than he has.

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