Caudillismo in Action: Looking Back on Honduras’ Plight

– Hunting for an endgame and an exit strategy
– The National Congress and Supreme Court are institutions of questionable virtue, but so is Zelaya
– The interim government has very feeble cards in its hand

The unfortunate events that have besieged the relatively few and brittle democratic institutions of Honduras in the last few weeks cannot be neatly compartmentalized into right or wrong, as certain insider and outsider actors would like to do. Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the deposed President of Honduras, correctly claims that he has been the victim of a coup at the hands of middle class elites that viewed him as a threat to their political and economic power. On the morning of June 28, the day a “non-binding” referendum was scheduled, he was whisked away from his home in the capital Tegucigalpa by soldiers of the Honduran Armed Forces, and taken to the Hernan Acosta Mejia Airforce base on the outskirts of the city. For several hours, the country did not have any clear information about the event. Columns of tanks and soldiers took to the streets of Tegucigalpa and a deliberate power outage was triggered, which left the citizens of Honduras veritably in the dark as to what exactly was occurring. Hours later, a distressed Zelaya appeared at a press conference at Juan Santamaría Airport in Costa Rica where he claimed to have been a victim of a coup and that the military had flown him out of the country.

However obfuscated was the information that this was a coup carried out by the military, a range of ideologically diverse world leaders unanimously denounced the coup. Zelaya’s expulsion has been flatly rejected by leaders of right-leaning Mexico and Colombia, moderate Brazil and Chile, and the members of the left-leaning ALBA bloc alike. Leaders throughout the Americas have firmly stated that they will not recognize any president other than Zelaya. Predictably, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered the most acerbic denunciation regarding the forceful takeover, claiming that certain enclaves within the military and the bourgeoisie had “turned Honduras into a ‘banana republic,’ into a political, military and terror base for the North American empire,” while simultaneously rattling his saber claiming that he would “overthrow” any government that was not Zelaya’s. Countering Chavez’s relatively qualified accusations of U.S. complicity, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and US ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens reiterated the stance taken by the rest of the hemisphere: President Zelaya is the only president that the United States will recognize. At the same time, US officials are hesitant to label June 28’s events a “military coup,” presumably since such a designation would automatically force a cut off of all-important U.S.-financed assistance to the beleaguered Honduran economy. Additionally, the UN, OAS, Rio Group and other area transnational bodies released strongly worded statements deeming the military’s actions anachronistic in 21st century Latin America, and corrosive of democracy.

Following Zelaya’s forced exile, Speaker of the National Congress Roberto Micheletti was sworn in unanimously by the Honduran Congress as Interim President of the country. Micheletti promptly installed a weeklong curfew and brought on a democracy wrecking crew which began to censor certain television and radio networks aligned with Zelaya. Just as quickly as he stepped in to fill the vacant presidential position, he was unanimously and properly condemned by the international community with Chavez going so far as to claim that he would overthrow the nascent regime, or at least that the “blue helmets” of the UN should.

As the interim government, the Micheletti regime found itself without a friend in sight. The rump government is now faced with an emboldened Zelaya who today enjoys undivided solidarity from the entire hemisphere. It is unlikely that the interim government will be able to hold onto power for much longer given the inevitability of decisive action against it. There are questions that deserve to be answered before any lasting solution can be administered: How did Honduras get to this point? Who is to blame? Unfortunately, culpability probably lies in every sector.

The Executive
Since his inauguration in January 2006, President Manuel Zelaya and his administration have been battered by several scandals which have raised suspicion across the country about the government’s bona fides. Once in power, Zelaya was personally known for an exceedingly confrontational posture towards other branches of government, as was made evident by his sometimes hostile stance toward his own Vice-President, and the forceful removal of government employees on dubious grounds. Furthermore, Zelaya’s own financial, nepotistic and corruption scandals included a number of hotly sought-after appointments to state-run companies that were ultimately steered to the brink of bankruptcy (Hondutel and ENEE), as well as his own questionable use of state funds for personal projects. Despite all this, his alignment with Hugo Chavez’s ALBA bloc proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it fully galvanized the controversy surrounding Zelaya’s presidency and set the stage for the most recent events to take place. But even then, Zelaya was never the firebrand radical leftwing ideologue his adversaries claimed him to be; if anything, a lame duck populist reformer would be a more suitable label. According to an opinion poll conducted by Mexican firm Mitofsky Consulting, his approval rating months prior to the coup was a dismal 25 percent, making him the least popular leaders of the Americas.

In November 2008, Zelaya began the push for the now infamous “Cuarta Urna” (Fourth Ballot Box) project. The stated intent behind “la cuarta” was to consult Hondurans, by means of a national referendum, on whether or not a fourth ballot box should be made available during the upcoming November 2009 election, giving the Honduran electorate an opportunity to support a revision of the present constitution by a Constitutional Committee. Such a body would be empowered to initiate the dissolution of both Congress and the Supreme Court, as they cannot coexist while a new constitution is drafted. The rationale behind the initiative was murky from the beginning. Several commentators, such as famed Honduran Human Rights Ombudsman Ramon Custodio, noticed parallels with similar referendums that had taken place in other ALBA member states. He expressed concern over Zelaya’s emulation of Chavez’s brand of caudillismo, claiming that Zelaya intended to use an eventual fourth ballot box to reform the constitution in a way that would allow him to serve a second term.

Zelaya’s intent was not diffused by the initial outburst of criticism by former Honduran presidents, congressmen from his own party, opposition lawyers, judges, political analysts and former and future presidential candidates. In response to all of them, Zelaya ramped up his offensive, using divisive rhetoric, populist measures and an expensive publicity campaign in order to win over potential votes. When faced with such opposition and legal impediments to the poll, Zelaya regularly delivered caustic barbs aimed at the dissident voices, while blatantly ignoring the spirit behind the checks and balances established by the constitution. The main points of contention have been Zelaya’s refusal to release the 2009 budget (due back in September 2008), and his threats of firing government officials if they did not publicly support the measure. But was all of this sufficient to justify what was soon to transpire at the hands of the patricidal members of the opposition?

The months leading up to June 28 found Zelaya increasingly facing off against Congress, the Judiciary, and the Armed Forces, none of them being indisputably reputable branches of the government nor tribunes of vigilant public rectitude. Then-Speaker Micheletti publicly called Zelaya’s actions irresponsible, claiming that more funds and hours were being spent preparing for the poll than running the country. He pointed to Honduras’ growing wave of violence, overwhelming poverty, crumbling infrastructure following the 2009 earthquakes, and the looming threat of the H1N1 pandemic as more pressing issues that had been ignored for far too long. Micheletti also cited Article 373 of the Honduran Constitution, which declares that only a two-thirds majority of the National Congress – that is 85 Congressmen out of the total 128 – can reform certain articles of the Constitution.

The Judiciary also condemned the “Cuarta Urna” initiative and all acts that led up to the potential June 28 vote as illegal. On March 25, the Attorney General’s office notified President Zelaya that the planned poll would be considered an abuse of power at the hands of the chief executive, and that, if carried out, he would have to submit to criminal charges, chief among them being treason. In late May, the Court for Contentious-Administrative Proceedings joined the fray by declaring that the “Cuarta Urna” was illegal and all activities relating to it should cease immediately. The President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Jorge Rivera, assented to the verdict of the lower tribunals by stating that “the decisions made by these tribunals must be obeyed, as we live under the rule of law.” Zelaya remained confrontational toward the legal dismantling of his project by making statements such as “The ‘Cuarta Urna’ goes and no one stops it” and, “Only God can stop the ‘Cuarta Urna’,” on several occasions.

On June 26, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – the entity in charge of managing electoral materials, logistics and general oversight of elections in Honduras – found that Zelaya’s “Cuarta Urna” violated electoral law and the constitution, claiming that it was “a plebiscite (a vote) which can only be approved by the National Congress and Supreme Electoral Tribunal.” All materials that were to be used in the “Cuarta Urna,” which had been questionably printed and flown in from Venezuela, were also deemed illegal. Had it been merely a poll, carried out by a private company, such as Gallup or Zogby, that was managing the event, and not the Electoral Tribunal, Zelaya’s plan would basically pass constitutional muster. Instead, Zelaya hired groups sympathetic to him and the “Cuarta Urna” to manage the initiative and imported the voting material directly from Caracas. A series of questionably legal and barely objective moves by Zelaya did little to ease the rumors surrounding his ambitions. The now entrenched establishment’s agenda was not any clearer.

For the anti-Zelaya camp, the proverbial last straw was drawn on June 25 when President Zelaya asked Chief of Staff Romeo Vásquez Velásquez (a graduate of the ill-reputed School of the Americas) to safeguard and protect the materials that were to be used for the “Cuarta Urna.” General Vásquez refused, stating that by complying with such a request the Armed Forces would be acting outside of the legal framework of the Constitution they had sworn to protect. Shortly after, Zelaya removed General Vásquez from his post. Out of solidarity with Vásquez, the Minister of Defense and collective chiefs of the Honduran Army, Navy and Air Force soon resigned. Almost immediately, the Supreme Court of Justice invalidated Zelaya’s order, stating that Vásquez had “obeyed the Constitution by not participating on Sunday’s [June 28] illegal consultation. His dismissal was wrongful and arbitrary.” In a subsequent press conference, a Supreme Court Justice menacingly stated that if Zelaya did not follow the ruling, “civil and criminal charges would take place.” Zelaya, once again, ignored a ruling which was demonstrably legal and which turned out to be a burning and smoking tire hanging on the neck of Honduran democracy.

Manuel Zelaya’s actions and words may not deserve to be described as undemocratic, but they certainly make it difficult to avoid. Zelaya undoubtedly stepped outside of constitutional bounds and thus pushed an already crumbling establishment to its limit. He also resorted to name calling and vilified the voices of the institutions that earnestly opposed the “Cuarta Urna.” Yet at his most flagrant moment, he did not display sufficient disregard for democratic checks and balances and the rule of law to pose a fatal challenge to the country’s constitutionality and the limits of the powers of the Executive branch. Zelaya appears to have felt that the country was ready to follow after him wherever he led. Thus, he was wholly unconcerned with the barriers and restraints that a democratic system affords equally to all three independent branches of government. Through his brazen actions, Zelaya created an antagonistic environment of which he ultimately became a victim of at dawn on June 28. However, Zelaya’s opposition was ready to do the very thing they wanted to stop.

The Armed Forces and the Interim Government

Early in the morning of June 28, approximately 150 balaclava-clad soldiers encircled Manuel Zelaya’s house in Tegucigalpa. A dozen soldiers then broke into the President’s bedroom, from where he was taken at gunpoint to the airport and then to exile in Costa Rica. What happened that morning was by every definition a coup d’état by the Armed Forces of Honduras; the military felt that it had the necessary elite backing to forcefully remove a sitting president and took control, albeit provisionally, of a democratic republic. What took place was a gross violation of democratic norms by a military establishment against what many – but by no means a majority – of Hondurans saw as a rogue president. Although the authors of the coup believe they acted as a constitutional bulwark to chaos, they actually had unleashed a flood that most likely will turn around and drown them.

The Supreme Court claims that it ordered the Armed Forces to seize Zelaya in order to “defend the state of law” and “apply legal dispositions against those who expressed themselves publicly and acted against the disposition of basic law.” Nevertheless, with all of its mendacious language, its espoused reasoning does not legitimize the expulsion of Zelaya, cabinet members, and key allies that ensued. Under the rule of law, Zelaya should have been submitted to the proper legal proceedings that were recommended by some more moderate personages prior to his forced exile. Instead of acting as a protector of the Constitution, the Supreme Court dealt yet another heavy blow to the already fragile state of Honduran democracy. Now as the tribunals have issued several warrants for corruption, embezzlement, treason and drug trafficking, the question now becomes: Where were they before the military became involved?

The birth pangs of the Interim Government began at around noon on the 28th when Congress produced a letter of resignation allegedly signed by Manuel Zelaya dated June 25. Addressed to Roberto Micheletti, the body of the letter stated that due to “health problems,” “an eroding political base,” and “the polarizing political situation,” Zelaya and his cabinet effectively resigned so that “the wounds [could] be healed.” Congress unanimously accepted the letter as authentic even though some members of Congress were not present in the chamber at the time to validate their votes. In the absence of an acting Vice-President, the Speaker was next in line. The stout and not exactly popular Micheletti was sworn in as Interim President of Honduras amidst applause and “Vivas!” but the participants were unaware that they were invidiously participating in a death watch of a failed initiative.

In his truncated inaugural address, Micheletti vowed that the scheduled elections would take place on November 29 and that democracy had prevailed in Honduras. Micheletti echoed the Supreme Court by saying that the army had acted in defense of the Constitution, and what had occurred was a “constitutional succession.” Unfortunately, the Micheletti regime is not helping the country’s already tarnished international image. News of the twice-extended curfew (10pm – 5am), the censorship of television and radio stations sympathetic to Zelaya (CNN and Telesur have been intermittently blocked) and images of the June 29 and July 5 violent crackdowns on Pro-Zelaya protestors outside the Presidential Palace and Toncontin Airport have made headlines around the world, further isolating an already alienated country. The Micheletti regime has further distanced itself from its self-proclaimed image as a righteous and democratic government by suspending Habeas Corpus, the freedom of assembly and free passage amongst other constitutional guarantees. Additionally, former battalion 3-16 leader Billy Joya has assumed the role of security advisor in Micheletti’s cabinet. Parallels with 1980s Honduras are becoming regrettably clearer as each day passes. Particularly, damage is being done to Honduras’ fragile democratic planks by an interim government that has not shown itself to be a friend of its own constitution, and a military force that has worked outside the confines of the law.

The Rule of Law
Many of the sparks of Honduras’ current turmoil were most certainly lit by Zelaya, according to his critics who saw him as undermining democratic institutions during his presidency. However, even though part of the blame undoubtedly lies in Zelaya’s hands, the Armed Forces and the Interim Government must own up to their share of culpability. Aggressively wrestling control from Zelaya was not in any form a constitutional act; it was a coup, and no amount of semantics will hide this unsettling fact. More to the point, it was a coup crafted to bring down Zelaya because under presumed Chavez tutelage, the Honduran establishment was convinced that he was moving the country towards the ALBA yolk.

Despite disappointing a significant percentage of Hondurans, the rule of law must be unequivocally reaffirmed. Both Zelaya and Micheletti have pronounced themselves as constitutional democrats, while hardly acting as such. Both have demonstrated disrespect to their positions and it is time both sides demonstrate the equanimity and cooperation seldom displayed in the violence, crime, and corruption that have transpired in Honduras over the past decade. Zelaya’s newfound international flamboyance and Micheletti’s uncompromising countenance are only allowing the crisis to fester and intensify. There have already been bombs set off outside government buildings, private businesses and radio stations plunging Tegucigalpa into a heightened state of tension. On July 5, the military spilt the blood of the very people both factions pretend to protect. It is time the rule of law return to Honduras.

If Honduras is to grow peacefully out of the morass it now finds itself in and become a stronger nation in the process, the relevant actors must stand down from their calcified positions, letting the law do what it must and do away with the de facto Potemkin democracy. Manuel Zelaya must return to the office he was elected to serve, Micheletti’s Interim Government must be dismantled, and the Armed Forces should guarantee the safety of all, with many of its senior commanders required to retire. Immediately afterward, the Honduran courts ought to protect justice by enforcing the law and impeaching some of their colleagues for breaking it. When Manuel Zelaya is adjudged, he must be given a fair and transparent hearing for the alleged 18 crimes he committed prior to June 28.. But so too should the architects of the coup. Compromise and dialogue are necessities at this point, and they must take place so that the Republic of Honduras can come out of these trying times as a coherent and lawful state and make it to the November 29 elections in one piece.

Mr. Ayuso is currently in Honduras and can be reached by e-mail at