Clarification of COHA’s Position on President Zelaya and What Went on in Honduras

On Friday, June 26, COHA issued a statement regarding recent events in Honduras. As a result of this communiqué, the organization has received a heavy volume of mail on the subject, most of it intensely critical. The article was drafted by Brian Thompson, an extremely bright young Honduran national and an ardent opponent of President Zelaya. Brian was under significant pressure within his community to steer his piece in a direction that would censor Zelaya’s “irresponsible actions,” which had been not a few in number. The only problem was that Brian’s “take” on what was happening in Honduras substantially differed from that of COHA. The result was that in a crowded office of some 30 researchers, the Honduran piece was released without sufficient oversight, and carried an analysis that was much different from that of COHA’s.

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. Over the years, COHA has been very involved in Honduras’s affairs, dating back to the banana wars of several decades ago, as well as the development of the country as Washington’s “Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier” during the years of the contra war and the operations of the U.S.- tolerated Honduran death squad Battalion 316.

As of now, many of Zelaya’s leading foes, including the leaders now serving in the rump government ruling Honduras, are unworthy and self-serving politicians who demonstrably are not being driven by democratic principles. It is true that COHA has been somewhat suspicious of President Zelayas’s motivation for his adhesion to ALBA, which we looked upon with approval as an act that pluralized the political landscape and vitalized the Honduran polity in a way unseen in the Central American nation since the admirable presidency of Ramón Villeda Morales, a half century ago. But alas it has been plain to see that Zelaya was more a local caudillo than a far-seeing regional leader.

Overthrow in Honduras
On June 25, Hondurans awoke in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The previous night, President Manuel Zelaya announced the ouster of General Romeo Vasquez, head of the country’s armed forces, on grounds of insubordination. General Vasquez had declined Zelaya’s order for the army to lend logistical support to a referendum on constitutional reform which was scheduled to take place in the country on June 28. As a result of this vote, the president hoped to eliminate, as has been recently done in a number of other Latin American countries, and as is about to take place in Colombia, the existing one-term limit placed on Honduran presidents to qualify for office. The referendum had just been declared illegal by Congress and the Supreme Court, and General Vasquez said that he would be violating the law by instructing the military to follow the President’s directives. However, having previously announced that “orders are meant to be followed, not analyzed,” Zelaya responded by discharging the general.

In response to General Vasquez’s firing, the nation’s military bases went into a state of “high alert.” Armored vehicles rolled out onto the streets and soldiers took up positions at key intersections. Later that day, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared Zelaya’s re-election game plan null and ordered the seizure of all ballot boxes and election-related materials. According to Spanish daily El País, the ballot boxes were being kept at the Tegucigalpa, had been flown in from Venezuela by the Chavez government, which was closely allied to Honduras via its trade and solidarity alliance, ALBA. Instead, investigators from the Ministerio Público, the Honduran attorney general’s office, arrived to seize the election cartons.

Street politics
At this point, the President decided to strike back and called hundreds of his supporters to follow him to the airport on a “mission” to rescue the electoral boxes. Zelaya placed himself at the head of the march and oversaw the actions of its participants after they battered in the gates to the base and swelled past riot police, where they then proceeded to remove the election material from the military facility.

While some members of the new government, including the ousted General Vasquez, have called for Hondurans to remain calm, Zelaya moved to oppose the actions of his foes. By pursuing his referendum, which has been declared illegal by the Honduran Supreme Court, and unanimously criticized by Congress, Zelaya challenged the escalating actions of his political foes, determined to confront what has become an extremely volatile situation.

The president’s version of events
On June 26, Zelaya announced that Congress was plotting a “technical coup” to remove him from power through so-called legal maneuverings. The technical coup Zelaya was referring to was an impeachment vote, which is allowed under the constitution, but only under very special circumstances, which did not appear to be met in this instance. This strategy also could be viewed as an attempt on Zelaya’s part to garner international support for his position. Several days later, after the military had forcibly removed Zelaya from power, an emergency meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States ruled in Zelaya’s favor, condemning the coup. By presenting his government as under attack by rightist, anti-constitutional elements intent on overthrowing his presidency, Zelaya has managed to present himself as an emblem of democracy and legitimacy.

President Zelaya successfully won democratic plaudits for himself as the authentic leader of his country. He also has been immensely aided by the almost completely unanimous support of the UN, the OAS, many of the EU countries, as well as Washington, all of which have declared that any extra-constitutional change will not be tolerated in Honduras or anywhere else.

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. 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.