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Wednesday, July 8, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Chris Lawrence is still having trouble “wrapping [his] head around in the Great Was-It-A-Coup?-Debate of 2009 is where the line between “legitimate transfer of power” and “coup” in this case lies” and wonders “where the line itself was exactly” and looks at a couple of possible thresholds. His post is a good excuse to do what I was planning to do anyway (because of the incessant arguments from commenters on this topic), which is to distill my position on this question as simply as possible.

I would define a coup d’etat (or golpe del estado in Spanish) as an extra-legal and/or illegal1 transfer of governmental power from a legitimately selected government or individual to one which acquires power through the aforementioned extra-legal/illegal usage of force. The exact method involved and the form of the post-coup government can vary. The basic element all coups have in common is that the main predicate for the removal of the person or persons taken from power is force in lieu of a legally prescribed and authorized process. It should be noted that those who foment coups almost always assert that their actions are legal and normally claim that they are acting to protect the constitution.2

To put the above into even simpler terms: a coup’s essence is to be found in an extra-legal/illegal transfer of power.

Some are violent events driven primarily by the military and result in the installation of a military dictatorship. A clear example of this would be the 1973 coup in Chile. Others may be driven by specific elements of the government against other elements. The best example that comes to mind is the Peruvian coup in 1992 in which President Alberto Fujimori dismissed the congress and suspended the constitution (which he eventually rewrote). The Peruvian case is sometimes referred to as an autogolpe (self coup), although I have always found that term somewhat problematic as while it was against the government he headed, he decidedly was not the target. It is also sometimes called the fujigolpe.

In both cases, elected officials were removed from office via extra-constitutional processes, although the ultimate regimes that took power were quite different (although in both cases the rupture of power allowed the coup leaders to rewrite their country’s constitution in a manner that was not commensurate with the process that existed in the previous constitution).

Taking this to Honduras and Zelaya: it became a coup when one set of institutions in Honduras decided that they did not want to pursue any type of due process to deal with what they alleged3 were illegal and unconstitutional behavior and decided to therefore apply force to the situation and then simply install a new person into the office of the presidency.

The lack of a formal and legal process to remove and replace Manuel Zelaya as president of Honduras is what makes this a coup. That he may have been guilty of illegality is not relevant to that fact nor is the fact that other institutions of the Honduran government signed off on the process.

Had they arrested him and charged him with constitutional violations, that would not have been a coup if the process conformed to the laws and constitutional norms of Honduras. Once the decision was made to use force to remove him from the presidential residence and summarily dump him not just out of the country, but out of office, that was when it became a coup.

Even if it is true that Zelaya contravened Article 239 of the constitution and that meant he should have been removed from office, the fact that summary judgment, arrest and exile were employed in lieu of transparent due process made this a coup. Indeed, as I (and others) have noted, it is legitimately debatable that what Zelaya was attempted did, in fact, violate article 239 (see here).

It should be noted that part of the reason for insisting on due process is that while those issuing the charges can assert any number of transgression, the assertions thereof is not proof. How can it be reasonable to remove a sitting, elected president without allowing that person to defend himself from such charges?

Indeed, I would argue that an objective examination of the actions of the morning of June 28, 2009 present a prima facie case that an extraordinary, extra-legal action was taking place. If the actions were legal and constitutional, why was a pre-dawn arrest necessary? Why was Zelaya secreted out of the country without being allowed a phone call or reasonable traveling clothes? Why exile at all? Why the press blackout? Why the lack of immediate and specific legal/constitutional explanations from the new government? Why was Zelaya denied the chance to legally defend himself? Why no actual process? etc.

I would argue that the evaluation of whether this was a coup or not has nothing whatsoever to do with Hugo Chávez, the Castro brothers, Barack Obama or what Zelaya may or may not have done prior to his ouster. The issue should be fundamentally focused on how he was removed from power.

A couple of other quick points:

  • I agree that it matters, in a qualitative sense at least, that the path that the current government appears to be taking is the resumption of constitutional norms (i.e., holding election in November, etc.). This is good and perhaps makes this, to coin a term, a golpeblanda (soft coup). That fact. however, does not change the nature of Zelaya’s removal.
  • I am willing to consider whether the event truly deserves the moniker “military coup” given that the main impetus for the event appears to have come from civilians and did not install a military government. I still lean towards it being appropriate as the instrument of the removal was the military.
  1. Extra-legal meaning a move that may not contravene a specific law or constitution provision, but that operates outside the law, while illegal would be an actual contravenes a specific law or constitutional provision. []
  2. This is why I have met with a combination of amusement and annoyance those who claim that because other parts of the government have claimed that the coup was legal that means a) it was legal and b) therefore not a coup-something I have discussed here and here. []
  3. I use the word “alleged” rather specifically, as there had not yet been an actual trial to establish guilt. Nonetheless, it does appear to me that Zelaya was behaving illegally. Still, in the absence of a trial, he cannot be considered formally guilty of anything. []
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7 Responses to “Getting Down to Basics in Honduras”

  1. MSS Says:

    Well put, Steven.

    On the first of the “couple of other quick points,” throughout Latin American history the sort of action that deposed a president but kept to the electoral calendar has been very common. It is the sort of thing that Al Stepan has always referred to as the poder moderador (moderating power). But he would not try to parse it and say these were not coups-military coups-just because another civilian politician replaced the deposed president, and the next election happened on schedule. (As I have mentioned before, the work of Brian Loveman is also very relevant here.)

    I think some people are trying to claim it was not a military coup because there is no military junta in place. But, in historical context, as well as plain definitions such as applied in the post above, one does not need a junta (and often has not had one) to have had a military coup.

    The coup against Allende was actually really unusual in the extent of violence employed, the death of the president it was directed against, the radical nature of the new de-facto government’s measures against the political process, and the longevity of the post-coup regime. And, yes, the Chilean military declared that everything it did had been legal under the 1925 democratic constitution!

    Events like the one in Honduras are many times more common than events like the one in Chile. And the term that defines them is coup. Military coup.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Good point-certainly there are plenty of examples in Argentina and Peru (and elsewhere) of the military basically saying, “sorry, not you” and then going back to civilian rule. I think that the interregnum here strikes me as being milder than even some of the historical examples that come to mind. Something to think about (for me, anyway).

  3. MSS Says:

    Well, several of the coups I had in mind were in Brazil between 1945 and 1964 (also Peru and Argentina, as you mention, and elsewhere). And few resulted in the exile of the deposed president. And I would suggest that the shows of force on the streets that we have seen in Honduras would be a good deal less “mild” than in most of the examples I was thinking of.

  4. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    A fair point as well, and certainly those who are describing Zelaya’s ouster as a blow against tyranny and for democracy are doing a rather good job of ignoring what has been going on.

  5. MIG Says:

    What’s the definition of a “junta”-in poli-sci parlance, anyway? My prole dictionary says it’s the rule of a military or political group after taking power by force-which is Honduras’s exact situation today. Is the term “junta” not correct in an academic sense? (If not, I’d suggest using the term to stress the illegal nature of what happened.)
    Interested in what you think. Thanks.

  6. MSS Says:

    That is a good question. I understand a junta as a governing council of active-duty military officers, who assume the role of the executive and usually also the legislative branch (though not always the latter).

    Sometimes there is a civilian-military junta, as after the Salvadoran coup of 1979. But that means still that there is an executive council that consists at least in part of military officers.

    So, while I have argued all along-in numerous comments here and in several entries at Fruits & Votes, and elsewhere-that this event in Honduras was a military coup, I do not think the current de-facto governing situation qualifies as a military junta. There is a single executive official who is actually the constitutional civilian successor to the president-what makes it illegal is that the military, rather than the constitutional process-overthrew the rightful president. And, of course, the legislature still functions, at least formally.

    Military coup, not military junta. At least for now.

  7. Fruits and Votes » Prof. Shugart's Blog » The definition of a military junta Says:

    [...] coup, notwithstanding that there is no military junta governing the country in the aftermath. At PoliBlog, a commenter asks what is the political science definition of a military junta, and why the current Honduran situation does not meet a dictionary definition of “he rule of [...]

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