Calling a Coup a Coup

U.S. conservatives' Honduras revisionism is misguided and dangerous.


Events in Honduras took a dramatic turn last week as an agreement was finally reached that could defuse the country’s long-running political crisis. But the coup’s defenders in the United States will likely maintain the dangerous stance they have adopted since late June. Ambassador Otto Reich’s Oct. 27 article on perfectly captured the ideologically driven revisionism that conservatives have peddled since the coup that replaced Honduran President Manuel Zelaya with de facto president Roberto Micheletti. Reich vigorously defended Micheletti’s assumption of power as the victory of the rule of law and a stand against Latin American leftists.

Although only a narrow segment of U.S. policymakers shares this view, it has consistently attacked the regional and international consensus around the events of June 28 as well as the only appropriate solution to the political crisis. Now, with the agreement on Zelaya’s return awaiting the Honduran Congress’s approval, Micheletti’s apologists will likely depict Zelaya’s return as a cowardly concession to another would-be Hugo Chávez. Once again, they will miss the mark. The deal struck last week offers a responsible, democratic exit from the four-month political crisis in Honduras.

In recent months, U.S. conservatives have argued that Barack Obama’s administration should recognize the Nov. 29 elections in Honduras as a way out of the political crisis. They made the case that in the democratic transitions that swept the hemisphere in the 1980s, the United States recognized elections held by previous authoritarian regimes to facilitate transitions to democracy; doing the same in Honduras, they contended, would offer a way out of a seemingly endless political deadlock.

This comparison is as dangerous as it is wrong. Allowing a government that came to power through unconstitutional means to ride out an interim period to the next election and then transfer power would set a perilous precedent for U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and beyond. Honduras in 2009 is neither emerging from a civil war nor struggling to end years of authoritarian rule. Instead, the country suffered a coup — an unconstitutional disruption to its democratic order — that requires a different remedy.

Since the coup, conservatives have called on the Obama administration to respect the rule of law in Honduras, which they say supports Micheletti’s assumption of power. It is true that Zelaya abused his position and ran roughshod over democratic institutions in his bid to maintain power. It is also true that his return should be as part of a coalition government, in which his role is constrained. But the legal defense for his ouster does not hold water.

Micheletti’s supporters cite a recent Law Library of Congress report* on the events of the coup to defend their claims, but ignore the fierce rebuttals this report has elicited. One of the most thorough was done by Rosemary Joyce of the University of California-Berkeley, following the legal analysis done by the University of Notre Dame’s Doug Cassel. Joyce argues that the Honduran congress does not have (nor did it claim to have) the powers to remove the president that the LLC report suggests. She also debunks the idea that the congress can get rid of a president by "disapproving of him" — the argument made in the LLC report — even if it followed the right procedures, which it most certainly did not.

Furthermore, even the LLC report concedes that the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress lacked the authority to remove Zelaya from the country. Micheletti supporters have conveniently overlooked this point, preferring to cite the report’s conclusions selectively. Even if Zelaya could have been constitutionally removed from power, just cause does not justify unconstitutional expulsion.

Refusing to concede this elementary point, many conservatives argued that the only solution would be to recognize the upcoming elections without Zelaya’s restitution. But allowing the coup to stand would have signaled to would-be coup plotters in the region that election years offer opportune moments to overthrow democratically-elected presidents. U.S. acceptance of the elections results would have revealed a troubling willingness to allow elected leaders to be removed as long as reasonably fair elections follow.

This posture would have mirrored the United States’ foreign-policy blunders in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, the United States supported façade democracies — deadly authoritarian regimes that held civilian elections to legitimize their rule — to pursue questionable geopolitical aims. This position cheapened elections and weakened nascent democracies.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has not repeated the errors of the past. Last week’s high-level delegation of U.S. diplomats proved instrumental for getting Micheletti and Zelaya to agree on a deal. The agreement sets the stage for Zelaya’s potential return, with constraints, before the upcoming elections. Although the Honduran Congress has yet to approve Zelaya’s return — notably, this body approved his removal in June — Zelaya and international negotiators are banking on lawmakers’ desperation to secure international legitimacy for the upcoming elections. And turning the issue over to the Congress — as opposed to the more ideological and intransigent Supreme Court — offers the opportunity to unwind the spurious claim that the June coup was constitutional.

But most importantly, the prospective settlement sets the stage for internationally recognized elections that will transfer power to a new president and help the country move forward. Zelaya and Micheletti both represent the past. The country needs to move on.

So too must those American pundits who proved so willing to support the sophistry of coup-revisionism. If adopted by policymakers, their views would risk throwing Latin America back to the dark days of military governments and sham elections of the 1970s and 1980s. It is not a road that the region can afford to go back down.

*Corrected: The original version of this piece misattributed a Law Library of Congress Report to the Congressional Research Service. FP regrets the error. 

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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