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Monday, June 29, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

The main problem, it would seem, with a lot of people’s assessment of the Honduran situation is that they insist on boiling down the whole thing (and, indeed, much of what happens in Latin America) to Hugo Chávez. Zelaya was an ally of Chávez? Well, then, do what you have to do!

A good example of this can be found in a piece in today’s WSJ by Mary Anastasia O’Grady: Honduras Defends Its Democracy which starts with the following sentence: “Hugo Chávez’s coalition-building efforts suffered a setback yesterday when the Honduran military sent its president packing for abusing the nation’s constitution.”

What if Chávez was an enemy of Zelaya’s? Or if he had been utterly uninvolved? Why is Chávez even relevant to determining whether or not the actions of the Honduran Supreme Court and military acted properly?

I understand: a lot of people in the US don’t like Hugo Chávez. I, myself, think that he is a detriment to the long-term democratic health of Venezuela, but I am continually amazed at the importance many ascribe to him. He talks a good game and has managed to obtain a modicum of influence in the region. However is not the hegemonic enemy who threatens US interests in the region that so many seem to think that he is. And even if he is, that doesn’t justify coups to oust someone because they are pro-Chávez.

O’Grady’s concludes as follows:

The struggle against chavismo has never been about left-right politics. It is about defending the independence of institutions that keep presidents from becoming dictators. This crisis clearly delineates the problem. In failing to come to the aid of checks and balances, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Insulza expose their true colors.

First, it should be noted that by this definition of chavismo, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is a consummate chavista, as he has already managed to get the constitution amended once to allow re-election, and is poised to repeat the feat. Of course, given the antagonism between Uribe and Chávez, I expect both men would find it amusing/annoying to consider Uribe a chavista (not to mention other examples of presidents who managed extra terms and who had no connection whatsoever to Hugo Chávez-I am looking at you Carlos Menem).

Second, to argue that critiques of the coup are failures to “come to the aid of checks and balances” is a remarkable statement given that there is no constitutional authority given to the Supreme Court of Justice to order the pre-dawn arrest and exile of a sitting president.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment: why in the wee hours of the morning? If this was a normal process, why not show up at a more civilized hour and calmly tell the president that he is being exiled, and would he please come along-after all, it is legal and all that. Actions aren’t relegated to pre-dawn because they are orderly and normal.

Third, and this is in some ways the issue that bothers me the most by those (such as here, here and here) who see this move as the salvation of democracy: what about due process and rule of law? Yes, Zelaya was engaged in illegal actions, so find a legally appropriate way of dealing with it. Summary judgment and immediate exile aren’t exactly the hallmarks of democratic governance (petty criminals get more process than that). It seems that most of the defenders of the coup (or those who wish to dismiss the notion that it was a coup) assume that arrest and exile was not only legal, but it was basically the only option available.

It is possible, by the way, to believe that Zelaya was acting illegally and recklessly vis-à-vis his plebiscite idea and that the move against him was an unconstitutional coup that had nothing to do with democratic governance.

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6 Responses to “Hugo Chávez Shouldn’t be the Issue”

  1. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Again: Chávez Shouldn’t be the Focus Says:

    [...] also: Hugo Chávez Shouldn’t be the Issue. addthis_url = ‘′; addthis_title = [...]

  2. Últimas noticias 3 Julio (en vivo) Golpe de estado en Honduras. Resistan !!! « Guerra Digital para la Resistencia Mental Says:

    [...] Hugo Chavez shouldn’t be the issue in Honduras (PoliBlog) [...]

  3. Hans Bader Says:

    The military had the authority to remove the president for seeking to extend his rule, even without a court order, under Article 272 of Honduras’s unusual constitution.

    Moreover, there was no “military takeover” in Honduras, since the president was replaced by a civilian (a legislative leader backed by 123 of 128 Congressmen), and since what happened was legal and ordered by the country’s supreme court.

    Honduras removed its would-be dictator, President Mel Zelaya, for violating his country’s constitution by seeking to extend his term in office.

    Zelaya’s removal was authorized by Articles 239 and 272 of the Honduran Constitution, and ordered by his country’s Supreme Court, after he used coercion and aid from Venezuela’s dictator to push an illegal referendum. But Obama has joined Cuban dictator Castro and Venezuelan dictator Chavez in demanding that Zelaya be reinstated.

    Originally, Obama’s justification for this demand was his erroneous claim that Zelaya’s removal was “illegal.” But when Honduras’s new president, a veteran legislator, pointed to stacks of court rulings that Zelaya had violated, the fact that the Honduran Congress had voted 123-to-5 to replace Zelaya, and that the military had legally executed a warrant for Zelaya’s arrest, Obama changed his tune.

    Now, Obama claims that Zelaya must be put back in power because of the “universal principle that people should choose their own leaders.” Never mind that even publications that criticized the manner of Zelaya’s removal, like the Economist, have candidly admitted that Zelaya was unpopular with Hondurans, who overwhelmingly back the removal of their president — and that Zelaya was a bullying crook with approval ratings below 30 percent who repeatedly violated his country’s laws. In the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other papers, Hondurans have overwhelmingly supported his removal.

    Apparently, Obama is determined to saddle Hondurans with Zelaya whether they want him or not, just because they once elected him. (Even though he radically changed his policy positions after being elected). Under Obama’s reasoning, Richard Nixon, who was twice elected president, shouldn’t have been forced to resign over Watergate, because that violated the American people’s “universal” right to choose their ruler.

    But the entire purpose of constitutional checks and balances, and the constitutional impeachment process, is that even elected presidents can lose their right to rule if they violate their country’s constitution or laws. In our constitution’s impeachment process, the Congress removes the president from office for wrongdoing, even if he was elected by a landslide. In Honduras, the Congress voted by 123-to-5 to replace Zelaya, including the vast majority of Zelaya’s own political party.

    Honduras did not use a formal impeachment process because its constitution does not have a well-developed impeachment mechanism, says Latin American scholar Juan Carlos Hidalgo at the Cato Institute. But its unwieldy constitution does have other, less elegant means of removing abusive presidents: Article 239 bans presidents from continuing to hold office if they seek to extend their tenure, or merely propose an end to presidential term-limits. And Article 272 gives the miitary the power to enforce those term-limit provisions. (the military’s law enforcement role is not unique to Honduras: in the U.S., federal troops were used to enforce a court order desegregating the schools in Little Rock in 1957, when the court’s order was thwarted by the Arkansas Governor. When confronted with powerful executives with armed followers who refuse to comply with the law, the courts cannot rely simply on a handful of U.S. marshalls, but rather must look to federal troops or the national guard).

    Journalists who romanticize foreign dictators have faulted Honduras for removing Zelaya and kicking him out of the country in his pajamas. But getting rid of tyrants is a messy and difficult process. You can’t get rid of a tyrant by asking him nicely to leave office.

    Honduras was far gentler to its menacing ex-president than the U.S. was in the past to people who threatened its democracy or constitutional order. In the Civil War, the U.S. government jailed without trial thousands of suspected confederate sympathizers, some of them innocent, as William Safire has noted, and some of them died in jail.

  4. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    The thing is and remains: if he was doing illegal things, then why not arrest him and give him a trial? The notion that the only choice they had was exile is ludicrous on its face as is the notion that the exile was legal.

    It really is that simple.

  5. Hans Bader Says:

    Your conflating his controversial exile with his perfectly legitimate ouster. His ouster was perfectly legal under Articles 239 & 272. His exile might be illegal under Article 81.

    It’s not the U.S.’s business to force a country to reinstate a bullying ruler who has violated its constitution over and over again and then been legally removed, even if we would prefer that they use alternative, more elegant means like a trial.

    (Note that as the late Chief Justice Rehnquist once noted, impeachments are not really trials, in how they operate, so it would inconsistent for the U.S. to demand that Honduras give its ex-ruler a formal trial before removing him, when we wouldn’t either).

  6. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    a) It is impossible not to conflate the ouster and exile, as they were done simultaneously. Blame the Honduran military for that one, not me.

    b) There was no due process for the ouster from office (he had no chance to defend himself).

    c) No, impeachment is not a trial in the legal sense. However, there is a process for indictment (impeachment in the House) and a trial in the Senate to determine removal. In other words: a transparent process-not a summary judgment that results in exile in one’s PJs.

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