29 Jun Honduras – Coup or Not? And What’s in a Word?
Events in Honduras occurred while I was in a plane on a long flight, so I do not have enough of a grasp of what the facts are, or appear to be, to offer an opinion. However, I wanted to note that, whatever they are exactly, they seem to have touched off an interesting, and not inconsequential debate, over what constitutes a “coup d’etat” and what constitutes a military coup. I have simply not delved sufficiently into the facts to offer an opinion, but I thought it would be, umm, unseemly for us here at OJ not to make note of these events.
As to the debate, Robert Lovato at HuffPo calls it a military coup and for the US to use its considerable powers of pressure to reverse it. Lovato compares the Honduran situation to Iran (I’ve delinked some of Lovato’s links as they can cause problems with the OJ site; see the original for his links):
Viewed from a distance, the streets of Honduras look, smell and sound like those of Iran: expressions of popular anger – burning vehicles, large marches and calls for justice in a non-English language – aimed at a constitutional violation of the people’s will (the coup took place on the eve of a poll of voters asking if the President’s term should be extended); protests repressed by a small, but powerful elite backed by military force; those holding power trying to cut off communications in and out of the country.
These and other similarities between the political situation in Iran and the situation in Honduras, where military and economic and political elites ousted democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya in a military coup condemned around the world, are obvious.
But when viewed from the closer physical (Miami is just 800 miles from Honduras) and historical proximity of the United States, the differences between Iran and Honduras are marked and clear in important ways: the M-16’s pointing at this very moment at the thousands of peaceful protesters are paid for with U.S. tax dollars and still carry a “Made in America” label; the military airplane in which they kidnapped and exiled President Zelaya was purchased with the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid the Honduran government has been the benefactor of since the Cold War military build-up that began in 1980’s; the leader of the coup, General Romeo Vasquez, and many other military leaders repressing the populace received “counterinsurgency” training at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the infamous “School of the Americas,” responsible for training those who perpetrated the greatest atrocities in the Americas.
The big difference between Iran and Honduras? President Obama and the U.S. can actually do something about a military crackdown that our tax dollars are helping pay for. That Vasquez and other coup leaders were trained at the WHINSEC, which also trained Agusto Pinochet and other military dictators responsible for the deaths, disappearances, tortures of hundreds of thousands in Latin America, sends profound chills throughout a region still trying to overcome decades U.S.-backed militarism.
Hemispheric concerns about the coup were expressed in the rapid, historic and almost universal condemnation of the plot by almost all Latin American governments. Such concerns in the region represent an opportunity for the United States. But, while the Honduran coup represents a major opportunity for Obama to make real his recent and repeated calls for a “new” relationship to the Americas, failure to take actions that send a rapid and unequivocal denunciation of the coup will be devastating to the Honduran people — and to the still-fragile U.S. image in the region.
The WSJ’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady says, on the contrary, that the military action was under the orders of the Honduras Supreme Court and therefore not a military coup, but instead the military carrying out lawful civilian orders of the court. She says, moreover, that although Honduras’s constitution can be amended to permit an extension of the presidential term, it cannot be accomplished by referendum, as the vote was intended to do, but instead requires a different constitutional mechanism.
That Mr. Zelaya acted as if he were above the law, there is no doubt. While Honduran law allows for a constitutional rewrite, the power to open that door does not lie with the president. A constituent assembly can only be called through a national referendum approved by its Congress.
But Mr. Zelaya declared the vote on his own and had Mr. Chávez ship him the necessary ballots from Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled his referendum unconstitutional, and it instructed the military not to carry out the logistics of the vote as it normally would do.
The top military commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, told the president that he would have to comply. Mr. Zelaya promptly fired him. The Supreme Court ordered him reinstated. Mr. Zelaya refused.
Calculating that some critical mass of Hondurans would take his side, the president decided he would run the referendum himself. So on Thursday he led a mob that broke into the military installation where the ballots from Venezuela were being stored and then had his supporters distribute them in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order.
The attorney general had already made clear that the referendum was illegal, and he further announced that he would prosecute anyone involved in carrying it out. Yesterday, Mr. Zelaya was arrested by the military and is now in exile in Costa Rica.
It remains to be seen what Mr. Zelaya’s next move will be. It’s not surprising that chavistas throughout the region are claiming that he was victim of a military coup. They want to hide the fact that the military was acting on a court order to defend the rule of law and the constitution, and that the Congress asserted itself for that purpose, too.
I express no view at this stage; to start with, I have not looked at the Honduran constitution (I will do so however, and report back). However, it is striking just how much the two accounts above are ships passing in the night.
For Lovato, core is the identity of the Honduran general and the claim that it is a military coup. For O’Grady, core is that the military is not acting on its own, but merely exercising police powers under instruction by the supreme court, the congress, and the attorney general, pursuant to a constitutional procedure; it was the referendum, not the arrest of the president by the military under civilian orders, that was extra-constitutional, according to O’Grady. The underlying political issue for each, of course, is Hugo Chavez, Chavist populism, and the Chavist path to holding power; Stratfor’s analysis is here.
The US position, meanwhile, is not very clear to me and seems to be shifting; perhaps ‘deliberately ambiguous’ is the best description. According to this WP news story, posted 5:15 Monday, Secretary Clinton is declining to characterize the action as a “coup” – the article notes, however, that coup is a term of US domestic law, the finding of which triggers a cutoff of (parts of) US aid:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said today the U.S. government is refraining from formally declaring the ouster of Honduras’s president a “coup,” which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid to the Central American country.
Her statement appeared to reflect the U.S. government’s caution amid fast-moving events in Honduras, where President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was detained and expelled by the military yesterday. But the move could put Washington at odds with the rest of the hemisphere, which has roundly condemned the Honduran military’s actions.
“We are withholding any formal legal determination,” Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing. She acknowledged, however, that it certainly looked like a coup when soldiers snatched a pajama-clad Zelaya and whisked him off to Costa Rica.
President Obama, meanwhile, has called the Honduran action “not legal”, according to the same article:
Later in the day, President Obama said the U.S. government believed the takeover was “not legal” and that Zelaya remained the country’s leader.
White House officials made it clear they would like to see Zelaya restored as president of the country, but left vague any specific efforts the country’s diplomats are making toward that goal.
Again, I am not yet conversant enough with things to make an evaluation of all this. I did find interesting this piece by Jason Steck, a PhD grad student writing at RCP blog, on the meaning of coup – I stress, I’m not necessarily convinced, but I found it an interesting read. A bit (again, I’ve stripped out the links):
The expulsion of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduras military has sparked a lively debate over whether or not the takeover should be called a “coup”. The reason for the debate is simple enough — “coup” conjures images of a military junta seizing power by extralegal force and repressing all opposition akin to Argentina in the early 1980s. Defenders of the Honduran military action point out that this action was not extralegal and was, in fact, authorized by the legislature and the courts in response to Zelaya’s own illegal attempt to extend his power in an imitation of his international mentor, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Critics, however, believe that this is just a rhetorical shill to cover up some kind of bias against Zelaya’s leftist politics.
What both sides miss is that a “coup” isn’t always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.
Civil-military relations in the United States are founded on assumptions both inside and outside the military that derive from the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Under Huntington’s ideal of “objective civilian control,” the military is granted substantial autonomy over a professional sphere of managing the application of violence, but is given no political role. Various forms of “subjective civilian control” where the military becomes embroiled in civilian political struggles are argued by Huntington to be militarily deficient and presumed by most westerners to be morally deficient as well. Americans frequently assume that this ideal is universally shared as an intrinsic component of a democracy ….
As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if the Honduran military was specifically authorized by a court order to arrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact that the American military would never be so authorized should not distract us from the possibility that legal authorizations for military interventions into politics might exist in other countries’ constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, in fact, a legal coup.