Honduras coup reveals fragility of Latin American democracy
By Odeen Ishmael
The fragility of democracy in Latin America was revealed late last month when the democratically elected President of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army and exiled to neighbouring Costa Rica.
Significantly, this coup which also forced out Zelaya’s cabinet was backed by a large section of the members of the Congress, including many of the President’s own party, as well as the judges of the Supreme Court. However, it was firmly opposed by the majority of the Honduran poorer classes comprising rural peasants and urban workers who have since mounted mass demonstrations in support of their ousted leader.
The ouster of Zelaya was the first in Central America since 1993 when the military forced Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano to step down. In the case of Honduras, the military dominated political life until the mid-1980s, but despite the end of the era of coups as a means for political change, clearly it never relinquished the intervention habit.
This disruption of democracy is now an aberration in the American hemisphere, and particularly in Latin America where dictatorial regimes were replaced by democratically elected governments from the beginning of the 1990s. Even Haiti, where a military coup overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991, saw the restoration of the President and his government three years later through the collaborative efforts of the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).
The 34 active member states of the OAS then proceeded in September 2001 to implement the Inter-American Democratic Charter which set out sanctions against the removal of governments in the region by unconstitutional means. The principle of democracy, according to the Charter, stipulates that governments (and also heads of governments) are chosen by the electorate to govern during periodic free and fair elections; and the same electorate has the right to remove those governments (and their leaders) at subsequent elections.
The UN acted quickly to condemn the Honduran coup by refusing to recognise the de facto regime, and demanding the restoration of the President. The European Union also condemned what it called a “coup d’etat” against Zelaya.
On July 5, the OAS moved one step further by suspending Honduras from the hemispheric body for breaching the conditions of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This was a noteworthy action since the organisation had not taken that measure when the democratically elected President Aristide was ousted again in 2004.
Interestingly, back in 1991, both the UN and the OAS recognised the then Haitian government in exile which continued to be officially seated in those bodies. Based on this precedence, some political observers feel that a similar pattern should have been followed with respect to Honduras.
Since the OAS’ action, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has been mediating between Zelaya and the “interim president”, Roberto Micheletti, to enable Zelaya’s reinstatement to the presidency. Zelaya said his restoration as president was “non-negotiable” and has even agreed to the formation of a national government, but Micheletti insisted that the President’s return to power was “an impossibility.” The success of Arias’ mediation, therefore, will depend of how far the coup leaders are willing to bend. But if this mediation process drags on, there may be no possible solution to the situation until after the November 29 general elections which will choose a new president. However, the United States has suggested it may not recognise those elections if they are held under the de facto government.
Of interest to note, the de facto Honduran regime and the country’s Supreme Court insist that Zelaya breached the nation’s constitution which led to his removal. However, if the President indeed broke the law, many political analysts insist that the Congress should have followed legal procedures to impeach him, rather than for the army pulling him out of bed and spiriting him out of the country in the dead of night.
What was Zelaya’s “crime”? According to his opponents, he planned to hold a referendum on June 28 to find out if the people wanted him to stand for election for a second term, instead of the single term as currently stipulated in the constitution. Such a referendum, the Supreme Court, the army and a large section of the Congress maintained, was a breach of the country’s constitution.
But the actual question of the aborted referendum read: “Do you think that the 2009 general elections should include a fourth ballot in order to make a decision about the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new constitution?”
There was absolutely nothing in it to indicate that Zelaya was seeking second term!
This issue was clearly explained by Mark Weisbrot, Director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic Policy Research who wrote in the July 8, 2009 issue of the London Guardian: “There was no way for Zelaya to extend his rule even if the referendum had been held and passed, and even if he had gone on to win a binding referendum on the November ballot. The 28 June referendum was nothing more than a non-binding poll of the electorate, asking whether the voters wanted to place a non-binding referendum on the November ballot to approve a redrafting of the country’s constitution. If it had passed and if the November referendum had been held (which was not very likely) and had also passed, the same ballot would have elected a new president and Zelaya would have stepped down in January 2010.”
Zelaya’s supporters are adamant that his overthrow resulted because of his leftist ideological position and his closeness to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-wing leaders of the region. He had entered the presidency with a centre-right ideology, but he alienated many of his allies in the Liberal Party by moving the country leftward.
This appears to have alarmed the right-wing oligarchy in Honduras, which condemned his plans for constitutional change as what they, illogically, saw as his attempt to stay in power for a second term. It also gives credence to the view that if Zelaya had not moved leftward the coup would not have occurred.
President Chavez, an outspoken critic of the coup, insists that the right wing in Latin America has now substituted the word “Chavism” for “communism” as the major fear factor, adding that “now Chavez is a threat and the blame for everything.”
The United States, which firmly condemned the coup, has turned up pressure on the de facto regime, warning that it will face severe sanctions if Zelaya is not restored to power. It has since halted the $16.5 million military assistance programme to Honduras and stated that a further $180 million in aid could also be at risk. However, it has not yet threatened to cut off trade or remittances, a move which could quickly bring down the nation’s economy. The European Union has added to the pressure by announcing the suspension of $93.1 million (65.5 million euros) in aid. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank also froze their assistance programmes to the country.
Since these economic sanctions will be very damaging, Zelaya’s supporters, on the other hand, are advocating targeted economic sanctions on the coup leaders and their business supporters to force the interim regime to allow his return rather than these broader measures that might harm the country’s poorest citizens.
Undoubtedly, the Honduran coup d’etat highlights the fact that democracy in the Latin American region is still not yet established on solid foundations. President Lula da Silva of Brazil described it as setting a dangerous precedent for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Since the promulgation of the Democratic Charter, some Latin American and Caribbean countries have witnessed convulsions and some reversals in the democratic process. Chavez himself was removed from power by a coup in April 2002, but was reinstated through the action of the Venezuelan masses.
Street demonstrations in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia earlier this decade also led to the toppling of elected leaders. In addition, there still exist some groups that are not yet prepared to accept the results of democratic elections. Political agitation involving huge crowds have led on some occasions to mob action elsewhere, as in Guyana when opposition-led street demonstrations saw the invasion of the President’s office by a riotous throng in July 2002. And in September 2008, Bolivia faced secessionist threats by its eastern states controlled by rightist opposition parties, and after acts of violence occurred, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) played the role as mediator to effect a shaky solution.
It can be argued that democracy amounts to much more than holding elections; that it is also about propelling the democratic process through, inter alia, broad national consultation and inclusive participation, after those elections are held. The pace may be slower in some countries due to various political and historical factors, but that should not provide an excuse for the ousting of governments through military coups. Surely, the army does not, and must not, have the “divine right” to overrule the power of the national electorate.
Nevertheless, despite moves to greater levels of democracy in the hemisphere, many of the freely elected governments continue to face serious threats from forces which promote their removal by non-constitutional means. Some of these forces were generally beneficiaries of discredited dictatorial regimes and they abhor losing out to the evolving democracy now being widely practiced. Notably, these groups have not seen it proper to vigorously condemn the Honduran coup.
Interestingly, five years ago, former Argentine Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, then director of the UN regional project on democratic development in Latin America, wrote in the introduction to a UN survey of democracy in 18 Latin American countries: “We have witnessed the deepest and broadest advance of democracy since the independence of our nations. But what has been won is by no means secure. Democracy appears to be losing its vitality. If it becomes irrelevant to Latin Americans, will it be able to resist the new dangers?”
Certainly, the dangers must be resisted and all democratic political forces, in or out of government, must apply policies and positive action to remove the brittleness from the democratic process in the region.
(The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela and the views expressed are solely his.)