This is a modest attempt at summing up the events that turned Honduras into Chávez’s el Alamein: the place where the advance of the Bolivarian revolution was halted.
Yesterday, mainstream international media declared the Honduran crisis dead after Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, elected in the general and regular elections November 29, had been sworn in as new president. Most nations are expected to resume normal diplomatic relations in short order. The exceptions are some Latin American leftist countries, but due to the right wind blowing in the hemisphere now, several of those may very soon change color, and one already has: Chile. History will show that Honduras election result started the pendulum swinging the other direction, and that the misdeeds of Zelaya – and the undiplomatic support he got from Chávez and OAS – was the triggering cause.
What made Honduras the place where Chávez, with his leftist revolution, was to meet his Stalingrad?
Zelaya was elected in 2005 and took office in 2006. He passed a law for popular referenda, to increase popular participation in politics. Later, he took a strong turn to the left, joined ALBA (with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, etc), and started arguing that to get more people involved one has to create “institutions for direct democracy.”
This is Chávez’s thing; move power from the traditional democratic institutions to local committees. A problem with this approach is that the legal protection for the individual risks getting undermined. For that reason the idea is opposed by defenders of the rule of law, which includes virtually the entire private sector. They started organizing against Zelaya.
Zelaya also met constitutional problems. He concluded that Congress didn’t have the authority to change the constitution in the intended way, and that a Constitutional Assembly therefore would be required. He tried to stay within the law by creating a poll on a referendum on creating a Constitutional Assembly. However, also this was challenged in court. Zelaya lost, and was ordered not to in any way, shape, or form continue with the idea of a Constituting Assembly, because only Congress can change the constitution.
It might seem self-evident that Zelaya would obey the Supreme Court, wouldn’t it? To understand why he didn’t, but instead said something like “What are they going to do? Arrest me? Let them come and arrest me!”, we have to look at what else went on.
In 2008 the candidates were getting ready to run for the presidential primaries. Two strong candidates from Zelaya’s Liberal party wanted to run, the president of congress, Roberto Micheletti, and the vice president of the republic, Elvin Santos. However, each tried to prevent the other from running by referring to the constitution, saying that he couldn’t run while holding that seat. It went to the Supreme Court, and it declared that a recent constitutional change that prevented Micheletti from running was unconstitutional, and revoked it. Thus the field was clear for him. Santos was less lucky. He ended up resigning as vice president in order to run (he later won the primary, but lost in the general elections to Lobo).
These maneuvers, this high pitched rhetoric, must reasonably have undermined the respect for the Supreme Court, as well as for the constitution itself. When Zelaya defied the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the constitution, he and his followers may not have realized that he had reached the shore of the Rubicon (if an army passed that river in Italy it was taken to mean that they aimed to overthrow the emperor).
The Honduran constitution does not have an impeachment clause, since there is no immunity. It is therefore up to the Attorney General to request an arrest order from the Supreme Court for the president. So Zelaya was right, the correct way to proceed would be for them to arrest him. He just believed they would never dare to do that.
Why did he believe they wouldn’t dare? This is where the U.S. comes in. On about 5 occasions leading personalities in Honduras approached Zelaya and tried to talk him into giving up the project instead of defying the Supreme Court. Obama’s ambassador, Hugo Llorens, appointed by Bush, participated in a number of those reunions. When talking proved futile, they considered using force. That would mean to have him arrested according to the constitution and the laws. Of course, he could not continue to be the acting president while sitting in jail, so someone else would have to take the helm. Since Santos had resigned, and the other two deputies were also out of the picture, the next person in the succession order was, by chance, Micheletti.
Llorens stayed in contact with Washington, and the Obama administration obviously kept the chairmen of the respective committees in Congress informed (CYA being an important principle). This is when Senator Kerry said “no,” he would not put up with it. He has been pointed out, unequivocally, as the one who put down the foot.
At this point, Llorens informs the Hondurans that if they carry out this arrest, the U.S. will call it a coup and not recognize the interim leader. (The legal research center at the U.S. Congress later reported that it indeed was legal, and thus no coup; Kerry objected loudly and demanded that they retract or change the report, but after re-assessing it, they instead confirmed their original conclusion.)
Here comes the really, really important part: Someone told Zelaya.
Whereupon he, of course, concludes that “nothing can stop this project except the Holy Virgin.” That’s what he told his staff, euphorically.
By now the Supreme Court had impounded the ballots for the poll and left them in the custody of the military. However, with the reassurance that he could not be stopped no matter what, Zelaya gathered a mob and went in person to take the ballots by force from the military base.
This is where he miscalculated. Until that moment, the balance weighed in favor of letting him remain in power. However, after using force to impose his will over the other independent branches of power, the Attorney General and the Supreme Court of Justice no longer had a choice. They had to arrest him, or they would have been derelict of duty.
Zelaya left the judicial and legislative branches no choice. They had a constitutional obligation to do what they did in response to his crossing the Rubicon, which was the storming of the air force base.
What has to be pointed out again is that if it hadn’t been for the U.S. effectively giving Zelaya a carte blanche, he would most likely never have crossed that line.
When the events played out – with the inevitability of something predicted by a seer in a Greek drama – and Micheletti was sworn in as the new president, he already knew that no country would recognize him as president. If the U.S. didn’t do it, no country would.
But he also knew that he had an obligation under the constitution – which he had sworn to uphold – to do it regardless. When he asked colleagues to work in his cabinet, he told them straight out that there is no chance that any country will recognize them, but in spite of that nobody turned him down. When he left office yesterday he did it as a national hero for the majority, and the final message was simple: Mission accomplished.
The politicians in Honduras have learned a lesson – hopefully – and that is to keep the rhetoric down, and that a “nuclear option” cannot actually be used since it hurts everyone. Hopefully some leftist US politicians will take away from this that one must never, ever, take a position that can be taken as a blank check for someone to violate laws. Next time, just listen politely but keep your mouth shut, will you? If you absolutely must say something, then tell all parties to just do what they know to be right, because in the end that is the best strategy.