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Coup in Honduras? :: Maybe Not

By Nick H-J

Headlines around the world declare there has been a military coup in Honduras. Until yesterday, I was in Honduras, and I am not convinced that a coup has taken place. I am not an expert on Honduran politics, nor am I well versed in Honduran constitutional law. I am, however, a consumer of news media and I notice that the accounts I hear from the international media do not bear any resemblance to what I saw inside the country. I was in Honduras for just ten days and I cannot claim to have personal experience of the events that transpired on June 28th, 2009, or the events leading up to that day. I do not claim to have a complete and accurate picture of what has taken place on the ground, but I am prepared to accuse the international media of not investigating the situation diligently. The reports I have heard leave out an entire account of events that seems entirely plausible. Nearly every Honduran I spoke with shared the same opinion. They told me that the most painful part of the events taking place in their country is the inaccuracy of the reporting in the media, and the lack of support that this reporting has generated in the international community. Lest you think that I am being taken in by propaganda being spread within the country by a military regime to support it’s legitimacy, I have not watched any of the Honduran media coverage of these events. There does not seem to be a military regime in Honduras. There seems to be a civilian government that is, as far as I can tell, entirely legitimate. I have talked to people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. From Corinto in the north, to Las Manos in the south, they say: “There has not been a coup in Honduras. Why is the media saying there has been one?”.

I will give you the Cliff’s Notes version of what seems to have happened based on the reports from the people I spoke with.

1. President Zelaya announced plans to hold a non-binding ‘poll’ as part of the elections scheduled for June 29th, 2009. He said this ‘poll’ would ask the population whether there should be a national referendum in future elections to call a constitutional convention (essentially to re-write the Honduran constitution).

2. The judicial branch of the Honduran government ruled that such a ‘poll’ was illegal and could not be held by the President.

3. Despite the ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court, President Zelaya had the ballots printed with which to conduct this ‘poll’. They were printed in Venezuela and flown into Honduras shortly before the elections.

4. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that these ballots were illegal and ordered them seized.

5. The Attorney General’s office took legal possession of the ballots but left them physically in the custody of the Air Force at the base where they were located.

6. Leading a mob of people, President Zelaya broke into the air base and forcibly took the ballots to distribute them for the election.

7. President Zelaya officially announced that these ballots were not asking the people of Honduras whether there should be a referendum in a future election on holding a constitutional convention, but were actually printed to be a referendum on whether there should be a constitutional convention called directly.

8. The Honduran Congress voted unanimously to declare the President unfit to serve and to remove him from office (which is provided for in the Honduran constitution), because he was breaking the law and was deemed to be trying to usurp the Honduran Constitution.

8. He was arrested by the military and exiled from the country.

9. The congress elected Roberto Micheletti (who was at the time president of the Congress) to be the Interim President until elections in November named an new elected president of Honduras.

10. Micheletti was sworn into office as the new president in the manner laid out in the Honduran constitution.

11. Former President Zelaya declared that he had been ousted in a coup and that the military had taken over the country.

12. Despite the fact that the country was under civilian control and the regime change was done within the confines of the Honduran constitution, the international media continues to report what former president Zelaya laid out as the story.

I am writing this in the hope that more scrutiny will be applied to this situation and that you who are reading it will call for better reporting and more investigating. My facts may not be in the right order. I am not a journalist and have limited ability to check all the facts that I hear. I have, however, been convinced by what I have seen in Honduras that what happened on the 28th of June was not a coup and was in fact a constitutionally sanctioned removal of a president. I have heard the phrase repeated many times on my satellite radio that Zelaya was an elected president. That doesn’t seem relevant to me. Nixon was an elected president in the United States and no one will suggest that there was a coup when he was removed from power by the U.S. Congress.

Below you will find two very illuminating articles. They detail much more eloquently than I have the recent events in Honduras and the relevant background information. They were written by a civilian in Honduras just after the supposed ‘coup’. This person will remain anonymous for their own personal reasons. I will say this about the author: They are well educated and well informed. I have spoken with this person at length about these events. I can see nothing the author would gain from the ousting of former President Zelaya. I am convinced that the author wrote these articles with no other motives then to express their frustration with the misrepresentation of the events they saw in the media and in their own way, to set the record straight.

After reading the following articles I urge you to contact NPR HERE, The BBC HERE, CNN HERE or whatever news source you watch and demand a more complete investigative report on these events. Please also feel free to send a link to this page to friends and family to spread some doubt about what everyone seems to have accepted without question: That there was a military coup in Honduras.

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Chronicle of Events Leading to Regime Change in Honduras

June 29, 2009

The following chronology attempts to provide both background information regarding the Honduran constitution, and a brief history of the events which led up to the forced removal of President Zelaya from office on Sunday, June 28, 2009.

1. Honduras, like most other countries, is governed by a Constitution which was approved by its voters in 1982. Among its many articles, the Honduran Constitution provides for:

a. A separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, each of which is considered of equal legal stature

b. A clear definition of the authority of each branch of government and the legal consequences of exceeding that authority

c. A defined process for the removal of elected or appointed officials in the case of a breach of the law or constitution. In the case of the Presidency, the Congress is given the authority to declare the President unfit and remove him/her from power for violation of the laws or Constitution of the Republic. (This is akin to the U.S. impeachment process.)

d. Mechanisms and procedures for holding plebiscites, referenda and a clearly established process to amend the Constitution. Indeed, the Constitution has been amended many times since it was first promulgated.

e. A prohibition to change a small number of articles in the Constitution, primarily involving presidential succession. The key element here is that the President is elected for one four-year term and may not be reelected. According to the 1982 Constitution, these articles may not be changed, and any attempt to do so constitutes a violation of the Constitution and is a treasonable offense.

2. During the three and a half years of former President Zelaya’s administration, he and members of his administration were informally, and occasionally formally charged with numerous violations of the law and the Constitution. Many of these violations had to do with fiscal matters, non-compliance with constitutional requirements to present the national budget on a determined date, etc.

3. In early 2009 President Zelaya announced plans to hold a non-binding “opinion poll” on June 28 to determine whether or not to hold a binding referendum as part of the regularly scheduled Presidential elections in November, on whether or not to call a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. Such a Constituent Assembly would, of course, imply the suspension of the existing Constitution and would be a treasonable offense under the existing Constitution. In calling for the opinion poll, which would constitute the first step towards a Constituent Assembly, the President invoked the examples of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia and argued that such a measure was required because the current Constitution did not provide for “direct democracy” but rather limited power to a political oligarchy. (The Congress is composed of “deputies” or representatives elected directly by their constituents in several hundred electoral districts.)

4. Many members of civil society feared that any constituent assembly would be merely a rubber stamp for a new constitution which has reportedly already been drafted, and which would reflect the new constitutions in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador which sharply curtail freedoms of speech and the press, and which give almost dictatorial powers to a President who is not constrained by term limits. President Zelaya said nothing in his promotion of the process leading to a constituent assembly to suggest otherwise, and has frequently complained about the unlimited freedom of expression as detrimental to the interests of his government.

5. During the past several months, numerous protests and legal challenges were made charging that the process initiated by the President was illegal for several reasons:

a. In calling for a Constituent Assembly, it violated the Constitutional means established to amend the constitution, and proposed replacing the existing constitution with a new constitution – a treasonable offense under the existing constitution.

b. In calling for an opinion poll, it violated established legislation which gives sole authority to the National Elections Tribunal to program and conduct any and all activities related with the electoral process.

6. More recently, within the past two or three weeks, several judicial bodies took legal action against the President for activities related with the “opinion poll” and its projected aftermath. These included charges made by the Honduran equivalent of the Attorney General, a separate attorney for acts against the Government, and several levels of the judicial system including initial, appellate and Supreme Courts. At the same time, the Congress formally declared the opinion poll to be illegal. In Supreme Court decisions, the holding of the opinion poll was specifically and explicitly declared to be illegal. Parallel to these legal and legislative actions, massive campaigns by various members of civil society against the opinion poll (“We don’t need anything illegal”) were mounted in newspapers, radio and television.

7. Despite the numerous judicial and legislative injunctions against holding the opinion poll, President Zelaya continued to promote it and spent heavily on advertisements on the radio and television – again, in direct violation of explicit prohibitions by the courts. He also instructed the armed forces to provide the logistical support and protection for the poll as is their constitutional duty during normal elections. After a lengthy period of public debate, the Supreme Court advised the armed forces that they would be acting illegally if they obeyed orders from the President to provide the requested support. Last Tuesday (June 23), the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces informed President Zelaya that he would be unable to carry out the President’s orders with regard to the opinion poll due to the prohibition placed on him by the Supreme Court. The President fired the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces later that evening, and the heads of the army, navy and air force all resigned in solidarity.

8. On Wednesday (June 24), the Supreme Court ordered the President to reinstate the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, arguing that the President lacked authority to fire him without sufficient cause. Tensions continued to build as it now became apparent that the President was on a collision course with the Congress, Judicial branch and armed forces. At this point, the Congress ordered a specially appointed Congressional Commission to examine President Zelaya’s official behavior in order to determine whether, as provided for under the Constitution, he should be declared unfit for office and removed from power.

9. On either Tuesday or Wednesday, an airplane with Venezuelan markings landed at the air force base in Tegucigalpa with the ballots for the opinion poll which was to be held on Sunday, June 28. The boxes of ballots were placed in a warehouse at the air force base under the custody of the air force. On Wednesday night, the judicial branch ordered the ballots to be confiscated.

10. On Thursday (June 25), judicial officials traveled to the air force base and took legal possession of the ballots but left them physically in the air force warehouse in the custody of air force officials. Later in the morning, President Zelaya led a caravan of approximately 30 busses to the air force base, physically broke down the gate onto the base, and forcibly took possession of the ballots. (The Air Force Commander, in order to avoid a violent confrontation, relinquished possession peacefully.) On Thursday evening during a nationally televised conference, the President announced that the opinion poll would go forward, under the organization and management of volunteer groups.

11. On Friday the Government published in the official record a presidential decree which formalized the opinion poll. To the surprise of all, the “opinion poll” now was not being called to decide whether or not to conduct a referendum during the November elections on holding a Constituent Assembly, but rather on whether or not to call a Constituent Assembly directly. This, to many observers, appears to have been the plan all along, but was only announced at the last minute in order to facilitate calling a Constituent Assembly IMMEDIATELY after receiving the results of the opinion poll – which was widely assumed would be flagrantly biased.

12. As Friday dawned is became increasingly apparent to many observers that a plot was underway to use the “opinion poll” to suspend the Constitution, call for a Constituent Assembly, cancel plans for the Presidential elections in November, and for President Zelaya to remain in office for an undetermined period of time. During the day Friday, tensions ran at a very high level with no major additional actions taken by any party. In the evening, President Zelaya held a televised conference with the diplomatic corps present, as well as volunteer observers from many other countries, and spoke at length about his justifications for the opinion poll and the need for “direct democracy”, leading to a Constituent Assembly.

13. On Sunday morning, as is well known, military officers and soldiers broke into the Presidential residence and conveyed the President at gunpoint to the air force base and from there to exile in Costa Rica. After arriving in Costa Rica, Zelaya spoke with members of the international media about being kidnapped and a military coup which had just taken place in Honduras.

14. In Honduras, electricity, land-line telephone service, and all radio and television transmissions were suspended as the armed forces took control of Tegucigalpa and other major cities and highways, and apparently arrested additional members of the President’s inner circle.

15. Beginning around noon, the Congress began to meet. The first announcement was the revelation of a letter of resignation signed by President Zelaya on Thursday, June 25. While the Congress formally accepted the letter of resignation, no explanation of its origin or the circumstances in which it was signed were provided, and President Zelaya, speaking to the international press from Costa Rica, angrily denied having signed it. The Congress then moved on to report out the conclusions of the Special Commission which had been appointed to examine the President’s official behavior and determine whether or not he was unfit to serve and should be removed. Following a reading of the report, a motion was made to declare the President unfit for service and to remove him from office. The motion passed unanimously. The Congress then approved a second motion to name the President of the Congress, who was the next in line of succession in the absence of the elected President, to become the new President of Honduras to serve for the remainder of the current Presidential term. After considerable discussion in which numerous speakers voiced their demands that Presidential elections be held in November as scheduled and that the interim President relinquish power to the newly elected President on the appointed day in January, 2010, Roberto Micheletti was elected to serve as President of Honduras for the remainder of the current term. Following Micheletti’s election, new officers of the Congress were elected to replace President Micheletti.

16. Following the Congressional session, President Micheletti and the new Congressional officers, together with various officials from the Judicial Branch of the Government held a news conference in which it was repeatedly emphasized that Constitutional processes had been used to carry out a change in the Presidency, and that far from a military coup, democracy, the rule of law and the supremacy of the Honduran Constitution had prevailed over the threat of a breakdown in Constitutional order, the installation of an illegal Constituent Assembly, and the conversion of Honduras into a popular dictatorship similar to that of Venezuela.

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Reflections on Honduras

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
The past several days have taken their toll on most people living in this country, Honduran or otherwise, as the conflict of passionately-held convictions plays out not only on the national and international scene, but within each person´s emotions.
From the perspective of participants in the country’s middle and upper classes – those who are the most visible in business and government, the professions, contributors to and consumers of radio, television and printed media, those who have a stake in the maintenance of institutional order and who believe that real progress can only be achieved through education, hard work and a stable economic and political environment – as well as from the perspective of the vast majority of Honduras’ “silent majority” of the poor and very poor, Honduras has just been saved from falling into the abyss of yet another populist dictatorship.

Examples from next door Nicaragua, which saw its GNP fall by 50% during the Sandinist revolution while freedoms of speech, the press and the protection of personal property were sacrificed, or from present-day Venezuela where a forced-march towards totalitarian socialism is taking place even as the country falls deeper and deeper into economic chaos, present nightmare scenarios of what might have been if Zelaya had been allowed to continue – and an absolute conviction that if he had been allowed to stay the country would have been irrevocably forced down that same path.

Having witnessed ever increasing levels of corruption, inattention to epidemic levels of kidnappings and murders, rapidly deteriorating physical infrastructure, a total lack of attention to measures to protect the country from the world-wide recession, and repeated attempts to circumvent constitutional process for political gain, most Hondurans were only too glad to be finally rid of Zelaya. They happily accepted the course of events which played out on Sunday, June 28, and applauded the constitutionality of the process whereby the Congress removed Zelaya from office and replaced him with the next in line of succession. The lack of military uniforms as new President Micheletti was sworn in and in turn, swore in his new Cabinet, together with the constant references to the legality of the process, the illegal behavior of the former President, and the preservation of constitutional order helped most to gloss over the fact that Zelaya had been forcibly taken from his bedroom at dawn and flown out of the country while still legally President of Honduras.
While civil disturbances are taking place in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, they are not of anywhere near the magnitude of many recent general strikes, and if frightening to the international press, are of relatively little concern to local residents. Much more bewildering, however, is the fact that the entire international community including, amazingly, the United States of America, has so completely rejected the change in government and called for Zelaya’s return. The fact that the countries whose economies are the models that Honduras’ middle class tries to emulate have somehow turned their backs on the country just as it struggles to escape the fate of Cuba and Venezuela, presents a level of cognitive dissonance few are able to comprehend.

Coping strategies in the face of such a bewildering rejection include a confident expectation that as soon as the “real” story is understood, the international community will change its opinion, a defiant declaration of national sovereignty and rejection of outside meddling in the country’s internal affairs, and a renewed commitment to stay the course – including the threat to arrest the former President if he were to set foot again in Honduras.

Of course, the outside world sees things differently. Most of the more advanced democracies have never experienced – at least in modern times – the level of illegal behavior exhibited by the Zelaya Government nor the lack of willingness to negotiate differences. The heritage of military coups in Latin America, frequently resulting in the replacement of democratically elected Presidents with self-appointed military juntas, is almost universally taken as evidence of the fragility of democracy in the region and the constant threat of strong-armed dictators. In a world aspiring towards democracy in all countries, any hint of undemocratic process – much less the removal of a serving President at gunpoint – is a totally unacceptable step backward. In Latin America especially, with its historically fragile democratic institutions, an abhorrence of military coups is one of the few values shared by countries across the political spectrum.

From the perspective of the outside world, it seems impossible to believe that Zelaya and his critics couldn’t work out their differences in good faith. And for those more familiar with the reality of the situation on the ground – i.e., the ambition-led intransigence of Zelaya to cede anything to his opposition – the decision to resort to violence destroyed any opportunity to accomplish a regime change through lawful process and in a way acceptable in the eyes of the international community. (This view, of course, is rejected by Honduran residents who believe that all attempts to use lawful process had been exhausted and military action constituted the only remaining way to avoid a Chavez-like populist dictatorship.)
Curiously, the perspective of the “activist” groups who supported – and continue to support – President Zelaya is of less concern to those who so strongly support the change in government. While significant, the portion of the population which actively supports Zelaya is probably around 15%, and those who are participating in demonstrations and disturbances number much less. In the eyes of those supporting the change of government, the Zelaya supporters are a small minority with relatively little power to reverse the course of events by themselves.
The conflict of passionately-held convictions is not between those inside Honduras supporting and opposing the recent change of government, but rather between the large majority of those inside of Honduras who passionately support the recent regime change, and the international community which absolutely rejects it. The conflict is so much more painful for Hondurans not because they are opposed by a small minority of Zelaya supporters inside Honduras, but by the entire international community on which Hondurans thought they could rely for support in the face of the threat to its democracy posed by former President Zelaya.
It is difficult at this point to imagine how this will end.

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3 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. As events have continued to develop over the course of the last several months Nick’s perspective on the “coup” seems to be gaining more and more credibility at last from media and the US government. Thanks for the “in-person” perspective — this is expeditionary travel at it’s best.

    1. John on January 18th, 2010 at 12:49 pm
  2. Amanda, thanks for visiting the site. I would love to read a more well articulated response that addresses some of the issues at hand, and talks about the sources you drew information from in arriving at your conclusion. Since you are writing us from North Hollywood I’m interested in which news sources you consume, and what direct experience you have of the situation. I’m particularly interested in whether you have been in Honduras since the ‘coup’ and whether you actually read the above article in it’s entirety. Hope to hear from you soon.

    –Nick H-J

    2. Nick H-J on October 28th, 2009 at 1:49 pm
  3. You are either republican, a fool or both…OF COURSE , THERE WAS A COUP IN HONDURAS….

    3. amanda on October 23rd, 2009 at 1:00 pm

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