21st Century Coup

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July 3, 2009
Latin American Press

Interim government shrugs off international community’s call for Zelaya’s return to power.

Honduras´ government has scoffed at mounting international pressure — seemingly one of the greatest displays of diplomatic unity in recent years — to reinstate President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted less than a week ago.

Since June 28, when soldiers physically removed a pyjama-clad Zelaya, a wealthy former cattle rancher who took office three years ago on a center-right platform, and sent him on a plane to Costa Rica, leaders ranging from Zelaya´s steadfast ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez , to US President Barack Obama have called for his unconditional reinstatement.

Opposition to his government has grown since he steered Honduras, a country of some 7 million, away from its traditional role as steadfast US ally, to align itself more with Venezuela´s Chávez. Honduras is a member of Chávez´s Boliviarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, which was founded as response to the US´ now-failed effort to have blanket free trade in the region.

Zelaya was removed from office the day he tried to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to put constitutional reform on an upcoming ballot in November. The vote had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court, and faced opposition from lawmakers and even members of his own party, who said he would use the reform to scrap term limits and run again.

Less than a week after his ouster, Honduras´ Congress named opposition leader and Congressional leader Roberto Micheletti interim president until elections are held in November.

The Organization of American States demanded that Zelaya be reinstated, and said if not, Honduras would face suspension from the group, and the United Nations refused to recognize Micheletti as president. The Inter-American Development Bank announced it was cutting off Honduras´ access to credit.

Some support
The military action shook Central America, which has not seen a military coup remove a head of state in a quarter-century. Supporters of Zelaya´s removal say that he violated the Constitution by seeking an extension of term limits.

“Continuismo — the tendency of heads of state to extend their rule indefinitely — has been the lifeblood of Latin America´s authoritarian tradition,” Octavio Sánchez, a former Honduran presidential adviser and minister, wrote in US newspaper the Christian Science Monitor. “The Constitution´s provision of instant sanction might sound draconian, but every Latin American democrat knows how much of a threat to our fragile democracies continuismo presents. In Latin America, chiefs of state have often been above the law. The instant sanction of the supreme law has successfully prevented the possibility of a new Honduran continuismo.”

Some criticized Zelaya´s government, but said the shocking method in which he was removed, was unacceptable.

A day before he was oustered, Zelaya had fired armed forces chief Gen. Romeo Vásquez for insubordination for refusing to provide military support for the referendum vote, which had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court.

Zelaya rallied his supporters and planned to push forward with the vote anyway, and his arrest was ordered.

“President Zelaya is the constitutional president of Honduras, but his conduct has been not always wise and had done damage to his standing in a very hostile political environment,” wrote Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, or COHA.

“It can be surmised that some of those who acted against Zelaya are worthy people who acted out of a sincere belief that Honduras´ democratic principles were at stake,” he wrote. “But no matter how well-intentioned they may have been, the military must realize that because of the region´s experience with military seizures of power and subsequent rule in which thousands of innocent civilians were subjected to an array of human rights atrocities as well as murder by armed forces, the hemisphere must stand united in upholding the principle of no extra-constitutional changes of power.”

“Extra-constitutional changes of power” have occurred more recently in Latin America, aside from 1983 military coup in Guatemala that overthrew Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt.

In April 1992, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is now jailed on corruption and human rights crimes stemming from his 1990-2000 government, ordered a “self-coup,” during which he dissolved Congress and curbed civil liberties.

In 2004, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991, 1995-96, 2001-2004) was ousted following a rebellion and replaced by the Supreme Court president.

While presidents including Venezuela´s Chávez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa have received extensions to term limits under new legislation, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has already been elected for a consecutive term, is currently pressing Congress to scrap term limits as well. In all cases, referenda, legislation or Constitutional overhaul were used or are being used to change the norms.

As Zelaya´s opposition in Congress and the Supreme Court say his arrest and deportation was simply based on a strict interpretation of the law and his alleged abuse of power, reports of violation of civil liberties have surfaced since the military coup.

The Honduran military had briefly detained seven journalists and had shut down “several” local broadcasters following Zelaya´s ouster.

“We are alarmed by the reports of detentions, the blocking of broadcast signals, and the closing of news outlets,” said Committee to Protect Journalists´ deputy director Robert Mahoney. “The Honduran people and international audiences have every right to be fully informed about events following the coup.”

Congress instated curfews and voted to curb rights to assembly.

Zelaya, who has gained international support following his ouster and has since abandoned plans to hold a referendum, is weighing whether to return to Honduras, where he faces arrest on abuse of power charges. Congress, Micheletti or the Supreme Court, however, have shown no sign of allowing him to resume power. —Latinamerica Press.