Over the weekend, Honduras was about to hold a referendum on whether its Constitutional prohibition against a sitting president running for a second term should be modified. The referendum was proposed by President Zelaya, whose term in office expires next year; an election is to be held in November.
The Constitution expressly states that its provisions concerning the presidential term of office and prohibiting reelection are among the very few provisions not subject to change.
Title VII, with two chapters, outlines the process of amending the constitution and sets forth the principle of constitutional inviolability. The constitution may be amended by the National Congress after a two-thirds vote of all its members in two consecutive regular annual sessions. However, several constitutional provisions may not be amended. These consist of the amendment process itself, as well as provisions covering the form of government, national territory, and several articles covering the presidency, including term of office and prohibition from reelection.
The text, in Spanish, of Article VII is provided in a footnote. Despite a ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court that he could not constitutionally do so, President Zelaya determined to go forward with the referendum.
The news reports on what happened next are often unclear and frequently contradictory; to some extent, the massive media coverage of Michael Jackson's death may have displaced them. Here, however, is my best effort at offering a summary distilled from multiple sources.
Sometime earlier this year, President Zelaya decided that the Constitution should be amended to permit him to run for another term. The Congress, controlled by the party of which President Zelaya is a member, refused to go along. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela provided the necessary ballots, and President Zelaya ordered the military to distribute them for a referendum to be held on 28 June. The Supreme Court determined that the referendum was violative of the Constitution, and ordered the top military commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, neither to distribute the ballots nor in any other way to carry out the logistics of the vote as the military would normally do in elections. General Vásquez Velásquez so advised President Zelaya, who promptly fired him. The Supreme Court ordered him reinstated, and President Zelaya refused. On 28 June, President Zelaya led a group of his followers to the military installation where the ballots were being stored, took them, and had his followers distribute them. The Congress voted unanimously to appoint a committee to analyze the situation and investigate President Zelaya for his refusal to respect the Constitution and the orders issued by other branches of government. He nevertheless carried on with his preparations, and offered only a cosmetic change to the referendum: on Saturday night (27 June); he verbally stated that the referendum would not be binding, but confirmed that it would go ahead as planned the next day. A few hours before the opening of the polling stations, the Supreme Court ordered the president’s arrest and removal from office. The army carried out the order, arrested Mr. Zelaya and transported him to Costa Rica. A reason for doing so was to avoid a bloodbath in the face of the threat of other governments interfering in Honduras’ internal affairs, among them Venezuela and Nicaragua. The likelihood of substantial popular protests over the ouster of Mr. Zelaya seemed small, since Mr. Zelaya had low support — polls showed around 30 percent before his ouster — "as many Hondurans were uncomfortable with his tilt to the left in a country with a long conservative, pro-Washington position." As indicated below, that bloodbath now seems quite possible, largely due to outside interference from Washington, Caracas and elsewhere. The referendum was not held, and the Legislature, in emergency session, unanimously selected its president as the interim President of Honduras as provided by Honduran law, and stated that a presidential election would be held in November, as scheduled. The interim President is of the same political party as former President Zelaya.
The ouster of President Zelaya has frequently been termed a "coup." That seems, to me at least, to stretch the word well beyond its commonly understood meaning. The Honduran military acted to execute the lawful orders of the Supreme Court and with the blessing of the "democratically elected" legislature; I have seen no indication that the military instigated the ouster. Nor is Honduras under military control; it has an interim civilian president, properly selected by unanimous vote of the legislature in compliance with the laws of presidential succession.
The United States Government was very active during the days leading up the exile of Mr. Zelaya. According to an article in the New York Times,
American officials did not believe that Mr. Zelaya’s plans for the referendum were in line with the Constitution, and were worried that it would further inflame tensions with the military and other political factions, administration officials said.
Even so, one administration official said that while the United States thought the referendum was a bad idea, it did not justify a coup.
I do not understand that it is the proper business of the United States Government to dictate to a foreign government on such matters; the decision as to whether another country should ignore its Constitution in order to maintain tranquility and thereby please the United States Government is not for the United States Government to make. This is particularly the case here, since the United States Government recognized that the proposed referendum was not "in line with the Constitution" and was a "bad idea."
The situation in Honduras provides an interesting comparison to the recent situation in Iran. President Chávez of Venezuela, who had expressed great solidarity with his ally, the ruling theocracy in Iran, during the recent unpleasantness there came quickly and vigorously to the defense of one of his other allies, President Zelaya. President Chávez said on state television that if his ambassador to Honduras were killed, or if troops entered the Venezuelan Embassy, the "military junta" would be entering a de facto state of war. Although he cited no credible evidence that these things were likely to occur, he put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert. "We will bring them down, we will bring them down, I tell you," he said, while hundreds of his supporters gathered outside Venezuela's presidential palace in solidarity with Zelaya. References to the current Honduran Government as a "military junta" were certainly erroneous; that, and characterizing the transition of power as a "coup" certainly are conducive to massive unrest. They would appear to serve no any other, legitimate, purpose. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, an ally of President Chávez, said that he would also support military action if Ecuador's diplomats or those of its allies were threatened.
President Obama came quickly but with slightly less vigor to Mr. Zelaya's defense as well.
"I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," Obama said. "Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference."
Although that doesn't sound like much interference, and in fact asserts that there should be none, it omits any mention of President Zelaya's refusal to engage in dialogue, even with the active encouragement of the United States Government. Moreover, the Obama Administration inconsistently "called for Mr. Zelaya's return to office as legitimate president of Honduras. Secretary Clinton accused Honduras of violating "the precepts of the Interamerican Democratic Charter" and said it "should be condemned by all." The Governments of the United States and of Venezuela thus supported the Honduran status quo ante; both ignored President Zelaya's defiance of Honduran law, of the Honduran Constitution, of the Honduran Supreme Court and of the Honduran Legislative branch. The new Interim President of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti said, "nobody, not Barack Obama and much less Hugo Chavez, has any right to threaten this country."
President Chávez was to meet with Mr. Zelaya in Nicaragua on 29 June. Now, Argentina's president and the head of the OAS plan to accompany Mr. Zelaya as he tries to return to Honduras. The World Bank has "paused" all program lending. Mr. Zelaya plans to speak at the United Nations on 30 June. Meanwhile, President Chávez and his friends are trying their best to cause all of the confusion and violence of which they are capable.
President Chávez had rejected the recent Iranian protests and blamed them on outside interference:
"We call on the world to respect Iran because there are attempts to undermine the strength of the Iranian revolution," said Chavez on Sunday in his weekly radio and television address.
"Ahmadinejad's triumph was a triumph all the way. They are trying to stain Ahmadinejad's triumph and through that weaken the government and the Islamic revolution. I know they will not succeed," Chavez said.
The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry also issued a statement blasting "the fierce and unfounded campaign from outside [of Iran] to discredit" Iran's president.
President Obama had tried to walk a very fine line in Iran — too fine a line, in my opinion — so as not to appear to "meddle" in its internal affairs.
The United States Government evidently viewed expressions of support for the Iranian protesters as meddling in internal Iranian affairs, yet it saw fit to express extraordinary support for Mr. Zelaya by demanding that Honduras depose an interim president unanimously selected as provided for in the Honduran Constitution, and return to power a president who had sought to violate the Honduran Constitution and whose arrest had been ordered by the Supreme Court. Although President Obama called on Honduras to respect "democratic norms and the rule of law," he evidently did not mean the norms, Honduran laws and Honduran Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court of Honduras.
If it is the policy of the United States Government not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, there are stark differences in its treatment of the Iranian theocracy and the Government of Honduras. There are no significant differences in the treatment of the Iranian theocracy and the Government of Honduras by President Chávez of Venezuela, and I would expect none; he desires permanent and total power over Venezuela for himself, and evidently views any attempts at diminishing the power of governments sympathetic toward him as counterrevolutionary and therefore very bad. I do not think that President Obama shares such views, and certainly hope that he does not. Nevertheless, I consider the current Washington approach to the crisis in Honduras to be grossly confused. Whatever may be President Obama's motives, I think that the United States Government made a very bad mistake in trying to upset the orderly transfer of power in Honduras.
The situations in Iran and Honduras warrant comparison.
*Article VII states, in Spanish:
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DE LA REFORMA DE LA CONSTITUCIÓN
ARTICULO 373.- La reforma de esta Constitución podrá decretarse por el Congreso Nacional, en sesiones ordinarias, con dos tercios de votos de la totalidad de sus miembros. El decreto señalará al efecto el artículo o artículos que hayan de reformarse, debiendo ratificarse por la subsiguiente legislatura ordinaria, por igual número de votos, para que entre en vigencia.
ARTICULO 374.- No podrán reformarse, en ningún caso, el artículo anterior, el presente artículo, los artículos constitucionales que se refieren a la forma de gobierno, al territorio nacional, al período presidencial, a la prohibición para ser nuevamente Presidente de la República, el ciudadano que lo haya desempeñado bajo cualquier título y el referente a quienes no pueden ser Presidentes de la República por el período subsiguiente.
DE LA INVIOLABILIDAD DE LA CONSTITUCIÓN
ARTICULO 375.- Esta Constitución no pierde su vigencia ni deja de cumplirse por acto de fuerza o cuando fuere supuestamente derogada o modificada por cualquier otro medio y procedimiento distintos del que ella mismo dispone. En estos casos, todo ciudadano investido o no de autoridad, tiene el deber de colaborar en el mantenimiento o restablecimiento de su afectiva vigencia.
Serán juzgados, según esta misma constitución y las leyes expedidas en conformidad con ella, los responsables de los hechos señalados en la primera parte del párrafo anterior, lo mismo que los principales funcionarios de los gobiernos que se organicen subsecuentemente, si no han contribuido a restablecer inmediatamente el imperio de esta Constitución y a las autoridades constituidas conforme a ella. El Congreso puede decretar con el voto de la mayoría absoluta de sus miembros, la incautación de todo o parte de los bienes de esas mismas personas y de quienes se hayan enriquecido al amparo de la suplantación.