Following the removal of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from office, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to condemn the move, saying it could create a “terrible precedent.”
What terrible precedent did she think might be established? A Latin American country was actually following its constitution?
Despite what you may have heard from Secretary Clinton or read in the press, there was no coup d’etat in Honduras. Manuel Zelaya, a Hugo Chavez wannabe, was legally removed from office for violating his country’s constitution to extend his power.
Zelaya had proposed a national referendum to amend Honduran constitution to permit him to serve an unlimited number of terms – much as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez proposed in 2007. But unlike Venezuela, the chief executive in Honduras is constitutionally-barred from proposing such a referendum.
Zelaya was legally removed from office in a 15-0 decision by the Honduran Supreme Court for violating Article 239 of the Constitution which states: “No citizen that has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform…will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” Significantly, nine of the Supreme Court Justices are members of Zelaya’s party.
To the Court’s credit, its initial response to Zelaya’s referendum was very restrained. Rather than ordering his immediate removal from office, it ruled his referendum unconstitutional and ordered the military – which normally carries out balloting logistics – to refrain from distributing ballots.
But Zelaya decided to go ahead with it anyway. When his country’s top military leader, General Vasquez Velasquez, refused to violate the Court’s order, Zelaya fired him. When the Court ordered him reinstated, Zelaya refused.
Zelaya and a group of his supporters then broke into a military facility where the referendum ballots were stored, stole them and began distributing them in violation of the Court’s directive. The ballots, not surprisingly, were manufactured in Venezuela.
Zelaya shouldn’t have just been removed from office, he should have been imprisoned.
Yet, the U.S. has condemned Honduras, rescinded aid to the country and cut off an unspecified number of visas sought by Hondurans desiring to visit the United States – an unfortunate consequence of a President and Secretary of State completely out of their depth.
The Hondurans can be forgiven if they’re just a little bit protective of their Constitution. At the time Honduras adopted its current constitution in 1982, it had already gone through 15 constitutions since gaining independence from Spain – a new one, on average, every 10 years.
Previous constitutions proved ineffective in restraining executive power and led to a succession of authoritarian military regimes. This is why the current constitution requires the removal of any president who proposes extending his term.
One can’t argue with the results. President Zelaya’s election marked the seventh consecutive democratic election in Honduras, the most in its history. By removing him, Honduras was simply acting to prevent that streak from ending.
By denouncing rather than praising Honduras’ defense of its democracy, and by cutting off all aid to the Honduran government, the Obama Administration has sent the wrong message to Hondurans who have paid an enormous price for it.
It sent the wrong message to Hugo Chavez and other regional despots who now must question America’s commitment to defending democracy.
And it sent the wrong message to Americans concerned about Obama’s commitment to democratic values in the wake of “Fishygate” and the intimidation of critics of the President at town hall meetings by his union supporters.
If Barack Obama continues to put his ideology before freedom, he may fall to a kind of coup himself – something the rest of us like to call “elections.”