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Constitutional Crisis in Honduras: An Expert Q&A

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Can you explain briefly the constitutional crisis and military ouster of the Honduran president on June 28?

The military removed President Zelaya at gunpoint and exiled him to Costa Rica on the basis of a Supreme Court order after Zelaya had ignored judicial rulings, declaring an intended popular consultation on June 28 to be illegal. This was simply the catalyst for a long-brewing confrontation between the branches of government in Honduras and a growing polarization in the society. Honduras is a poverty-stricken, traditional society run by two political parties and a dominant class since its return to democracy in 1980. Zelaya, a large landowner from one of those two parties, was elected president in 2006 on a conservative platform promising economic growth and reduced violence and crime. He began to introduce pro-poor reforms and other policies that ran into resistance within the Congress and business class, his nominations for Supreme Court and other positions were not approved by the Congress, and he eventually turned to Venezuela for more unconditional aid and discounted oil. His growing closeness with Chávez alarmed many in the middle and upper classes of Honduras, while his talk of anti-imperialism, constitutional change, and significant rise in the minimum wage energized workers and the rural poor.

He proposed constitutional change in late 2008 but failed to get congressional approval for a referendum asking the population whether they would approve a constituent assembly to reform the constitution. In March 2009, the president decreed that the National Statistical Institute should carry out a non-binding "survey" (consultation at ballot boxes) to determine if the voters would like to include a referendum to approve a constituent assembly, with the national elections already scheduled for November 2009. This was the so-called fourth ballot box, adding to the votes for president, Congress, and local officials.

The Supreme Court, the Congress, and the National Electoral Tribunal all declared such a survey or popular consultation illegal, since it was not approved by Congress. The president ordered the military to support the consultation anyway (the military traditionally provides logistical assistance for elections). When eventually the military refused to go against the Supreme Court, the president dismissed the chief of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Court reinstated him and ordered him to confiscate the ballot materials (allegedly provided by Venezuela). The president went with a crowd to military barracks to reclaim the ballots and vowed to continue with the June 28 "survey." According to official reports after the fact, on June 26 the Supreme Court issued a secret order to the military to detain the president. The military entered his home the morning of June 28, and apparently decided on their own to exile him rather than imprison him in Honduras on the grounds that the latter would provoke popular unrest. The national Congress then unanimously approved the removal of Zelaya and elected the head of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, as president to fulfill the term to January 2010.

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What did the international community do to help resolve the situation?

The Zelaya government requested support from the Organization of American States (OAS) in the week before June 28 to avert a democratic crisis, and the OAS resolved on June 26 to send an urgent mission. Before the mission arrived, however, the coup occurred on June 28. That afternoon, an emergency session of the OAS Permanent Council declared the coup to be an "alteration of the constitutional order," invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter to unanimously condemn the coup, and called for the reinstatement of President Zelaya. The resolution also called for the OAS secretary general to consult with regional leaders gathered in Nicaragua but did not instruct him to travel to Honduras for fact-finding or negotiations. An emergency session of the hemisphere's foreign ministers (OAS General Assembly) met on June 30 and gave a 72-hour deadline for Honduras to reinstate Zelaya; it also instructed the secretary general to undertake diplomatic initiatives to restore constitutional order. Secretary General Insulza traveled to Honduras the afternoon of July 3, twelve hours before the deadline was to expire, but made no progress, hamstrung by not being able to meet with the installed government for fear of legitimating them. The following day, the OAS suspended Honduras from its membership, implying also the suspension of international loans, and many countries recalled their ambassadors.

Three Latin American presidents and the Secretaries General of the OAS and the U.N. General Assembly accompanied Zelaya as he attempted to return to Honduras on July 5 in a high-stakes gamble to motivate his supporters to turn out en masse and force acceptance of his return, but his plane was not allowed to land. Two days later Zelaya met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, who announced that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias had agreed to mediate the situation. The sitting president, Roberto Micheletti, and President Zelaya both traveled to Costa Rica to meet with Arias on July 9 but refused to meet together. Commissions from both countries continue to meet with Arias looking for a solution.

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How can the situation be resolved?

The international community hoped that universal condemnation of the coup and threats of economic sanctions would force the interim government to back down. The Micheletti government, however, insisted that Zelaya's removal was a defense of the constitution, that the military was simply carrying out Supreme Court orders to remove a president who had broken the law, and that if Zelaya returned to the country he would be arrested on charges of treason and attempting to change the form of government.

The conflict involves a constitutional crisis in that both sides have drawn on the constitution to support their arguments, and the constitution itself has multiple, sometimes conflicting, articles on constitutional change. It allows for popular referenda to modify the constitution, but the referenda must first be approved by Congress. It also allows the Congress to modify the constitution directly. The constitution specifies seven provisions that can never be changed, however, including the form of government, the term of president, and the prohibition on presidential reelection, and it says that anyone who tries to change these articles should immediately lose their official position and will lose their citizenship if sentenced in a court of law.

It is unclear whether a constituent assembly could write a wholly new constitution that could change these provisions. Opponents to Zelaya assumed that he wanted to allow reelection to perpetuate himself in power, though this was never presented as a referendum question. Some of the accusations against Zelaya appear to be based on this presumption that he seeks to change the "set-in-stone" constitutional provisions and fears of how he could manipulate the rules to maintain himself in power after January 2010.

The conflict also involves a deeply polarized society in which some sectors (mostly upper and middle classes) feared that President Zelaya was moving the country toward a Venezuela-style socialist revolution and concentration of power in the president, and other sectors (mostly workers and rural poor) saw him as the person to address the 60 percent poverty rate and highly unequal society.

Given two entrenched positions, with apparently illegal actions by all sides (the forced exile of the president without due process; the president's defiance of the Congress and Supreme Court), this is not an easy conflict to solve. If either side forces the issue, the inflamed passions of the citizens who support and who oppose Zelaya can easily erupt into violence. One death has already occurred. A negotiated solution is therefore imperative.

Three scenarios appear possible:

a) The installed government continues to resist Zelaya's return and endures international isolation and sanctions for six months until a new government is elected and inaugurated. The installed government "wins," but at the cost of painful economic losses, increased polarization, and risk of violence and loss of life.

b) Zelaya is successfully reinstated with international assistance and "punishes" the coupsters. This is unlikely in that it would involve force if there is no negotiated mechanism for his return. However, if the installed government were to back down in the face of international pressure, this would constitute a "win" for Zelaya and the international principle against military coups, but at the potential cost of a president without support from any national institution, and increased polarization in the country, with risk of violence and loss of life.

c) A negotiated solution involving no obvious winner, involving one of a number of scenarios, possibly with amnesties for all involved, perhaps the reinstatement of Zelaya followed by his immediate resignation in favor of a care-taker government to manage elections, or his reinstatement with commitment to forego any attempts for constitutional change and international monitoring of compliance with all commitments made in the negotiated resolution.

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How is The Carter Center involved?

The Carter Center is the secretariat for the Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a group of former presidents, ministers, and jurists who are committed to the principle of the Charter and work to encourage the OAS to more effectively and constructively implement the Charter, and to assist countries undergoing democratic crises. The Friends issued a statement on June 30 condemning the coup but also encouraging the OAS to initiate a political dialogue in Honduras to resolve the inter-branch conflict, recognizing the constitutional crisis underlying the coup.

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What does the situation in Honduras tell us about the state of democracy in the hemisphere?

Although this looked like a classical military coup, it wasn't in that the military did not attempt to stay in power after ousting the president, and they claimed they acted on orders from the Supreme Court. The last classical military coup was 1991 when the Haitian military overthrew Aristide and stayed in power three years. Since then, military officers joined with popular protests to remove Ecuadoran President Mahuad in 2000 and replace him with the vice president, and the military high command removed Venezuelan President Chavez in 2002 after massive protests and violence, replacing him with a businessman (though this was reversed 48 hours later). The Honduran coup is thus part of a pattern over the last decade of presidents being forced to resign early from pressure by combinations of different actors – military (or parts of it), Congress, and popular protests (Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Haiti are some examples).

Honduras also illustrates a recurring pattern of disputes between different branches of government, sometimes caused by presidents overreaching or abusing their powers and sometimes by Congress attempting questionable impeachments. Generally, the international community has a hard time addressing this kind of democratic threat and is reluctant to intervene or offer assistance early enough to prevent a constitutional crisis of the type that erupted in Honduras. The one success story for the OAS in this kind of crisis occurred in Nicaragua in 2005 when the government actually requested assistance under the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the face of impeachment threats and questionable constitutional reforms. The OAS mediated a resolution of that constitutional crisis.

The good news is that the entire hemisphere united for the first time to roundly reject the idea that the military could remove an elected official by force no matter what the offence. Instead, judicial proceedings or congressional impeachment, with due process, must be used to pursue allegations of abuse of power. The U.S. condemnation of the coup also mooted criticisms from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Honduras of U.S. conspiracies against leftist forces in Latin America going back to the Bush era. The Obama Administration demonstrated its commitment to defend democratic principles no matter what the ideology or political alliances of the threatened government.

The challenge now is for the hemisphere to learn to use the Democratic Charter to also defend democratic principles when they are threatened by non-military actors, whether that is a president abusing power, a court or legislature threatening a president, or social actors inciting violence or unconstitutional acts.

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