Everyone’s Wrong About Honduras

Reinstating deposed President Manuel Zelaya would be a disaster.

President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and President Barack Obama make for strange bedfellows, but the two men have found an unlikely common cause in Manuel Zelaya. A mustachioed rancher with a signature Stetson hat, Zelaya was toppled from Honduras’ presidency on June 28 in Latin America’s first successful military coup since the Cold War. His ouster has prompted a virtually unprecedented outbreak of consensus in the hemisphere, with every leader in the Americas demanding Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement. There’s just one problem with this uncharacteristic eruption of regional harmony: It’s likely to move Honduras even further away from the re-establishment of constitutional order that the international community claims to desire.

While the army’s ultimate decision to whisk Zelaya out of the country was indeed an illegal coup, the deposed president bears full responsibility for plunging Honduras into the constitutional crisis that led to his extrajudicial removal from office. In the 2005 election, he ran as a centrist law-and-order candidate and won by just four percentage points. * To solidify his relatively weak mandate, he handed out generous salary increases to teachers and raised the minimum wage. This blew a hole in the budget; scared off the International Monetary Fund, which had previously made loans to Honduras; and forced Zelaya to turn to Hugo Chávez, Latin America’s pre-eminent sugar daddy, for financing.

Chávez’s price was that Honduras join his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (recently rechristened the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), an anti-U.S. political trade bloc. The move stunned Honduras, a fiercely conservative nation that has traditionally been a staunch U.S. ally. Zelaya, whose term ends in January 2010, further alienated voters by floating plans for a constituent assembly, a new constitutional convention that would enable him to remove the country’s inconvenient ban on presidential re-election. The current Honduran Constitution makes no provision for such a mechanism and explicitly states that its one-term limit can never be amended.

Zelaya’s call for a poll asking Hondurans whether a formal vote should be held on staging a constituent assembly was ruled illegal by the nation’s supreme court. The president went ahead anyway, ordering the army to distribute ballots. When Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the head of the Honduran military, refused, Zelaya fired him; the supreme court then reinstated Gen. Vásquez and ordered the ballots confiscated. Finally, Zelaya himself led a group of supporters to an air force base to recover the ballots. This blatant disregard of judicial orders led the supreme court to issue a warrant for his arrest.

In virtually every other country in the world, Zelaya would have been removed from office. But, peculiarly, the Honduran Constitution does not include an impeachment procedure—Congress is entitled to name a new president only in the absence of the current one. So, rather than bringing Zelaya before a judge to be tried for his criminal misbehavior, the army rousted him out of bed and flew him off to Costa Rica in his pajamas. The legislature then voted to replace him with Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress, who was next in the line of succession.

There is no doubt that this last move should not be allowed to stand. But the international community’s single-minded insistence that Zelaya be reinstated as soon as possible—ignoring his own campaign to undermine constitutional order—is likely to backfire. Zelaya’s behavior has left him every bit as isolated within his country as Micheletti is outside of it. The entire Honduran political establishment, including virtually every member of Congress, the courts, the military, and the business community, is dead-set against his return. And while the opinion of the population as a whole is tougher to measure—no one has taken a poll in the last week—the deck seems stacked against him. His approval rating was a mere 30 percent even before this episode began, and the demonstrations against him have been larger and more numerous than those in favor (although a strong military presence has surely caused many Zelaya supporters to stay home).

The region’s leaders, who seem blind to these realities, have not budged from their campaign to shove Zelaya back down Honduras’ throat. In fact, José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, along with the left-leaning presidents of Ecuador and Argentina, has volunteered to personally accompany Zelaya on his return to Honduras, as a “diplomatic shield” against his (entirely legitimate) arrest.

This has prompted a dangerous surge of reactionary, jingoistic nationalism in Honduras. The media are awash with accusations of “infiltration” by “Communist” agents from Nicaragua and Venezuela, and Micheletti’s backers feel the country’s sovereignty is being trampled on. “Neither Chávez nor Obama should interfere with our country,” said Rosario del Carmen, a government employee at an anti-Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa’s central square. “We already had a dictatorship in the ‘80s, and Zelaya was making another one.”

By backing the Micheletti administration into a corner, the region’s leaders are forcing it to take a defiant posture. Rather than allowing itself to be kicked out of the OAS, the new government pre-emptively withdrew from the organization on Saturday. The OAS “is a political organization, not a court,” Micheletti wrote in a letter to Insulza, “and it can’t judge us.” The harder the international community pushes for Zelaya’s reinstatement, the more determined plucky Hondurans will be to prevent it—and to make it impossible for him to govern if he does return to office.

None of this means foreign governments should accept the coup and recognize Micheletti as president. But rather than framing the issue as a contest of wills, Insulza needs to recognize that Zelaya had sacrificed most of his political support and legitimacy in the weeks leading up to the coup and aim to engineer a negotiated solution. That means talking to Micheletti (which he refused to do on a visit to Tegucigalpa), offering Zelaya the option either to resign or to stand trial in Honduras, and probably a call for swift new elections. The generals who gave the order to deport Zelaya should also be tried.

Finally, to make sure this situation never happens again, any deal should also include the introduction of an impeachment mechanism into the Honduran political system. Zelaya was right that the country needed constitutional change—just not the one he was advocating.

Correction, July 7, 2009: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Zelaya won the 2005 presidential election in a run-off vote. (Return the corrected sentence.)