Resistencia and Democracy in Honduras

There is in Honduras a grouping calling itself “the national popular resistance front against the coup d’état”, FNRP. Before scrutinizing their agenda I just have to comment on their name.

As is now known, the coup d’état was perpetrated by Manuel Zelaya, but it was stopped by the checks and balances, the democratic institutions of Honduras. However, it is not that coup d’état which this organization is referring to in their name. They are referring to the action to stop the coup d’état, when they say “coup d’état.” However, according to my analysis, it was a coup only in form, not in substance, as neither the constitution was changed, nor any president was put in place who would not have been president if all the formalities of the constitution had been followed to the letter.

One may describe the events with this similitude: Zelaya was in his office, and committed a crime. The court asked the military to fetch him. To prevent him from returning they booby-trapped the door. Micheletti was sworn to take care of business in Zelaya’s absence. He climbed in through a window, since the door was booby-trapped. Seeing this, the police was called, thinking he was a burglar. This is a relevant similitude, since the actions of the military prevented Micheletti from being made interim president in the appropriate way, but he still had an obligation to run the office in Zelaya’s absence – and Zelaya was not coming back since all he faced was his immediate arrest.

Nevertheless, FNRP considers Micheletti’s “climbing in through the window” to be a coup, and they consider the attempted overthrowing of the form of government by Zelaya not to be a crime.

What is the argument of FNRP?

Their argument is that the power of the Congress and the President emanates from the people, and is only delegated to them. Therefore, they argue, the people can take that power back. They claim that they, FNRP, is the true representative of the people, not Congress, nor the President. They argue that their self-appointed organization is more democratic than the will of the people as expressed in democratic elections every 4 years, latest on November 29, 2009.

Furthermore, they claim that the appointment of Roberto Micheletti as interim president on June 28, 2009, was a coup d’état, and as a result of that, they argue, the Constitution has ceased to be in force. Therefore, they continue, since there is no Constitution of the land, it is appropriate to hold a Constituting Constitutional Assembly in order to write a new Constitution from scratch.

For good measure, Zelaya is also asking the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of OAS to declare the replacement of Zelaya a coup d’état, and to order Honduras to hold a Constituting Constitutional Assembly.

What is the plan of FNRP?

They plan to create a new Constitution themselves. Regarding a planning meeting held March 12 to 14, English-language blogs write, “After a serious debate the various sections of a new constitution were laid out.”

Not able to find any such document online, I proceeded to seek information (through a mutual acquaintance) from Congresswoman Carolina Echeverría, from Depto Gracias a Dios. She was one of those liberal party congressmen and -women who objected to the way in which Micheletti was appointed interim president on June 28, and she is, I’ve been told, one of the top leaders of FNRP. I appreciate that she was willing to share some information with me for use on this modest blog.

According to Echeverría, a Constituting Constitutional Assembly is being prepared for June 28, 2010. A new constitution is being drafted by a working group. However, the process is not open. The general public does not have insight into what it may contain, nor can they contribute with input.

However, another source with a good connection network in FNRP has told me that they are at present discussing prolonging the maximum presidential period from 4 years at present, to somewhere between 8 and 16 years. This would entail to change one of the unchangeable paragraphs that are “cut in stone.”

What can FNRP hope to accomplish?

If the debate and the meeting are not open, then the whole process becomes a special-interest partisan effort that will have no impact on mainstream Honduras. The only way in which it can become relevant is if they force it on the rest of the population. Since this is unconstitutional, there are only three ways in which it can happen: A coup d’état, a revolution, and a foreign military intervention (cf. previous post).

I think we can rule out revolution and war, which leaves only the coup alternative. Is there any reason to suspect that the present president might attempt the same kind of coup as Zelaya did?

Unfortunately, the answer is not “no.” Pepe Lobo was sent by the Honduran communist party to study in the Soviet Union. He denies it, but a person I interviewed assured me he has talked to three persons who studied together with Lobo in Moscow, and although two of them are now dead, the third is still alive and can bear witness about it. What makes this suspicious is not that he studied there for a few months, but that he is assuring that he didn’t.

Furthermore, Lobo was initially positive to Zelaya’s plans, until the wind turned against it. Finally, an FNRP-connected source has told me that the party of Lobo, the Nacionalistas, are participating in the drafting of the new constitution.

Here I should point out, that if any elected politician in any way proposes or facilitates changing the presidential term limit, they would immediately lose their elected office, and be ineligible to hold any elected office for 10 years, according to §239 in the Honduran Constitution.

Therefore, they have every reason to hide their participation in this process. The Nacionalistas don’t just have the presidency at present, they also have a majority in Congress. The only branch they don’t control is the Supreme Court.

A coup scenario

Assuming that the above is correct, what may happen in the worst case scenario is that the Nacionalistas decide to vote in Congress on a motion that simply recognizes that the present Constitution is null and void (by being violated by the alleged coup last year, that they themselves voted for incidentally, but what says they have to be logical and consistent?). The next step would then be to vote to recognize the legitimacy of the Constituting Constitutional Assembly and the new constitution. That constitution would obviously throw out the present Supreme Court, since that is the only institution capable of stopping such a coup.

If the military obeys the president (who has replaced the entire leadership of that organization since the coup attempt by Zelaya), then this might succeed.

Is this likely to happen? No. But if it happens, it would be a big setback for democracy and the rule of law.

How can the threat be diminished?

First we have the legal means. Already now, any elected official that in any way, shape, or form violates §239, should be indicted and separated from office awaiting trial. Since contributing to drafting this new constitution would be a violation of §239 (and more), this may be the reason why the process is not open to the public. However, even advocating the holding of a Constituting Constitutional Assembly may violate that paragraph. The problem with this method is that it may backfire seriously in the field of public relations.

Therefore, I would advocate primarily using political means. Members of Congress who are opposed to constitutional coups can deflate any popular support the FNRP might have, by taking the initiative in the efforts to (legally) reform the constitution. Indeed, Congress itself can start an open and transparent process with citizen participation. It could take the form of a website for debating the need for, and proposals for, constitutional reform. Since only Congress is authorized to change the Constitution, it only makes sense if Congress itself does this. Of course, they should use experts in designing the user interface, but staff or representatives should engage in the debate and the wording of proposals.

Although there are some unchangeable paragraphs in Honduras’s Constitution, I don’t understand how those points in any way could prevent progress. There can be no democratic reason to write a new Constitution, as reforming the old one is perfectly adequate. Anyone who argues otherwise must be suspected to be an anti-democrat.

If Congress takes the initiative, the undemocratic forces can be marginalized so they no longer can prey on popular discontent. Undemocratic forces on both extremes need to be separated from the mainstream, so a civil debate can take place within the mainstream.

Personally I am quite optimistic about the possibility to do this in Honduras. I believe that many of those who most loudly claim that it is impossible, are the very extremists who we must marginalize. Those are not the ones to listen to, they should be turned off – or just switch channel.

5 Comments

  • Ulf, the concept of rule of law in Honduras is thin and malleable. Just look at how many FNRP and constituyente leaders are on the goverment, I will name two: Cesar Ham and Marvin Ponce, these two guys should be barred from any government position and running for public office, since they blatantly violated article 239 of the constitution and continue to do so.

  • Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

    While I was writing this blog entry, Congresswoman Marcia Villeda (Liberal like Echeverría, but in the majority) attended a meeting at which, to her shock, former foreign minister under Zelaya, Edmundo Orellana, said that “the constituting constitutional assembly will be held, in a good way, in a bad way, or by weapon power, but it will happen.” This is a level of rhetoric that must be condemned by the international community. It is not acceptable in a political context to threaten to enforce ones (illegal and unconstitutional) will by the use of force, whether in the form of a revolution or a military coup.

  • Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

    A source in Honduras told me that the Supreme Court is not as independent as I believed when I wrote this post. Their every decision is being dictated from Washington, allegedly. I don’t know if to believe that, but I can say that it probably would not be a bad thing if they had some expert to consult on some more tricky issues, to avoid another situation that the world mistakes for a coup d’etat.

    The same source says that the Lobo government and congress is planning to reform the constitution after getting input from the resistencia. That seems like a good strategy for national reconciliation: Reform it legally instead, and reform the substance, that which matters. However, neither side seems to be happy.

    One side argues that due to the “coup” the return to democracy requires, yes requires, a constitutional assembly. It is not about content, words, paragraphs, it is a matter of “regaining democratic legitimacy”. That argument is of course pure BS, but facts don’t matter for a demagogue. In other words, those extremists must still be isolated and rejected by the mainstream. They must not be allowed to speak without being contradicted.

    Others suspect that Lobo’s party will change the constitution in Congress, legally, so that it becomes legal to hold a constituting assembly – and then hold it, changing the articles cut in stone. Of course, this would be as illegal as Zelaya’s poll – no matter the procedure, changing something that must not be changed is and remains unconstitutional. The counter-argument is, though, that the new president of the parliament is more flexible, and that the Supreme Court is controlled from Washington, why they might force it on Honduras.

    What both these views reveal is a lack of confidence in the rule of law. If all sides just trust democracy, the law, and respects human rights, then I am sure things will work out just fine. But as long as the FNRP uses intimidation, threats of force and similar, tensions will continue.

  • Ulf Erlingsson wrote:

    This article appeared in Honduras Weekly, and there it was noted by World Affairs Daily, who link to it this afternnon: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/

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