Tag Archives: Coup d’état

The modern coup d’état: Constituent Assembly

On August 12, 1999, the Constituent Assembly (asamblea nacional constituyente) in Venezuela declared itself above the law, above the constitution, above the parliament, above the president, even above the Supreme Court. They thus broke the constitutional order, which is tantamount to committing a coup d’état. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Constituent Assembly was above the constitution, why they had the power to declare themselves above the law so to say. The Supreme Court decision was clearly outside of its competence.

Writes Gianluigi Palombella in «Constitutional Transformations vs. “Juridical” coups d’ État. A Comment on Stone Sweet»: “according to the common view, when a competent power acts within the limits of its conferring rules, explicates its own tasks within the range of the rules of the game, without asserting a new, previously un-conferred – power for the future, this would be unlikely to be characterized as a coup.” The Venezuelan Supreme Court clearly and blatantly acted outside of its conferring rules, outside the range of the rules of the game, when it conferred all the powers of the existing constitution to an assembly that was not contemplated by the constitution – even it’s own powers. It was a clear-cut coup d’état from a juridical perspective.

How was it possible to get away with such a blatant coup d’état in our day and age? It seems that the coup was “sold” by confusing two terms, thus obfuscating the matter in media. The appropriate assembly would have been a Constitutional Assembly (asamblea constitucional in Spanish), i.e., an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution to be approved according to the provisions of the existing constitution. This is what was done in Iceland recently, for instance. However, what they did create was a Constituent Assembly (asamblea constituyente).

A constituent assembly is only appropriate when there is no pre-existing constitution, for instance in the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the Venezuelan independence, and the Estonian independence in 1919, since in those cases the previous condition had been a monarchy without a constitution, or a situation of being a part of another State. In contrast, Finland did not hold a constituent assembly after independence, since they had retained the Swedish constitution during the time Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia. Nor did Estonia hold a constituent assembly at the second independence in 1991 (they instead held a constitutional assembly to write a new constitution). As a final example we can take Iceland: No constituent assembly was held at independence since they continued with the (slightly modified) Danish constitution, until they eventually held a constitutional assembly to modify the constitution without breaking the constitutional order.

It is possible that the similarity between the words “constituent” and “constitutional” has been exploited on purpose in order to confuse, and to get away with the juridical coup d’état en Venezuela in 1999. It is, however, impossible to deny that it was a coup d’état, and that ever since 1999 Venezuela has been ruled by a coupster regime.

Military Coup in Venezuela Oct 7, 2012

What has been called an election victory for Hugo Chávez was in reality a military coup. The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, won the election, but the regime activated a military coup with tanks on the streets of all the major cities in Venezuela, while withdrawing the protection from the presidential palace. They then told Capriles, “accept defeat or else.” Meanwhile they committed election fraud after the polls closed, just so as to be able to make it plausible to the international community that Chávez had won. There was no effective election supervision, and the opposition’s parallel vote counting operations were shut down by force while people were still standing in line to vote.

Make no mistake, this was a military self-coup. Hugo Chávez now is a three-time military coupster. There was a spontaneous protest on Monday evening, but a protest that had been called via social media on Saturday outside the election authority CNE failed to materialize. Many expressed on Facebook that they were afraid to demonstrate, that they feared for their lives.

Updates: An editorial in Venezuela reached me just after publishing this. The title is “Coup d’état against Capriles“.

Here is a declaration made by a number of civil groups that are rejecting the election results unless proof are presented within 48 hours, “Declaración de Caracas“. They mention that although the law says that 54% of the machine results shall be audited, only 2.5% actually were (the voting machine produces a paper printout which the voter then deposits in a ballot box; by counting the papers manually the poll workers are supposed to verify the printout of the machine on 54% of the machines). Since the regime knows which these 2.5% are, they are free to commit voter fraud on the remaining 97.5% of the machines. Still this is just one out of many forms of fraud committed in these elections.

El Golpe de Estado de Chávez 1999

Todo el mundo reconoce que Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías intentó hacer un golpe de estado militar en Venezuela en 1992, pero no es tan bien conocido que llegó a hacer un autogolpe en 1999. Este video muestra claramente como lo hice.

¿Qué significa? Significa que la constitución venezolana de 1961 todavía sigue en vigor, y que el pueblo venezolano legitimamente puede levantarse contra el régimen de Chávez y derrocarlo, ya que la constitución de 1961 no solamente les da el derecho, pero les da el deber de hacerlo.

Por el resto del mundo significa que les sirviera mejor no tratar el régimen de Chávez, ya que no es legítimo. Un nuevo régimen democrático puede censurar a la OEA y la ONU por no haber defendido la democracia en Venezuela. Como sabemos, el único país que ha detenido este tipo de autogolpe del siglo XXI es Honduras, pero siempre hay la esperanza de que los pueblos en las democracias caídas se levanten. Ahora cuando el pueblo en Cuba está despertando, dejando el miedo atrás, solo es una cuestión de tiempo hasta que todos estas dictaduras en America Latina caen.

Además, la salud de Chávez puede acabar con su vida y su régimen golpista en cualquier momento. El hombre propone pero Dios dispone.

Chávez consummates coup d’État

The Congress in Venezuela, AN in Spanish, has now installed itself. The opposition got 52% of the votes, the chavistas got 48%. However, the chavistas have got a larger number of congressmen (98 vs. 67) which they used to steamroll the opposition, and accept the unconstitutional legislation passed in the eleventh hour by the lame duck session. The methods used did not even have a semblance of democracy. To top it off, the new Speaker is a former traitor of the country, who helped a communist invasion force from Cuba in the 1960’s: Comandante Ramírez, now known as Fernando Soto Rojas. Chávez, backed by the Cuban vice-president Valdéz, is attempting to rule Venezuela with a finger. His middle finger. The shock effect is similar to the one that Adolf Hitler was aiming for when he made himself absolute dictator in a similar way.

This means that it is no longer a crime against democracy to depose Chávez by force.

In fact, if Chávez was sent to an isolated island to spend the rest of his days in internal exile, a prisoner at a military base, it would not be a crime. Just like it was no coup d’État when the military of Honduras arrested Zelaya, jailing Chávez while democracy is restored would not be a coup.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that it is likely to happen. Venezuela has a different set of circumstances than Honduras. It has no independent judiciary, it has no independent parliament. There is thus no democratic institution that can give the orders to the military. The military would have to act on its own, based on their own, internal, evaluation of the constitutionality, in obedience to the oath they have taken.

Even though there is a large majority of militaries in Venezuela who would agree with this action, it is still a very risky proposition, because the top leaders are bought by Cuba, and there are Cuban soldiers at various levels to assure compliance with the orders from Havana, Cuba.

Therefore, the best bet for Venezuelans who want democracy and the rule of law to be restored (and the many political prisoners to be released) is to organize a totally civilian non-violent resistance. The downside with that strategy is that it can take a long time to reach victory, and be very costly. However, it can also be used a a first step towards a military mutiny.

Just like there were many Germans who supported Hitler and the Nazis up until the oppression became obvious, so are there still quite a few Venezuelans who support the Chávez dictatorship. They probably don’t understand or give a damn about democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. Perhaps they just see their own personal situation, and are not concerned with the suffering of their fellow Venezuelans. I don’t know, but to reach these people with the message is key to eroding the support from the dictator in Caracas. When the support is sufficiently eroded, a mutiny may be the final step to reach a quick end to the disaster that is Bolivarian Venezuela.

Annex: Como derrocar a una dictadura (pdf).

Link: List of political prisoners in Venezuela.

Coup d’état by Chávez in Venezuela

The opposition to Hugo Chávez is accused him Wednesday of carrying out a coup d’état, due to the package of laws that he is ramming through the lame duck session that ends January 5th next year. The package includes an Enabling Act that makes the next congress mute – something that Hugo himself has made fun of by heckling them on TV. It also includes severe restrictions on free speech, the right of assembly, and the right to property. His partisans, the chavistas, have said that Venezuela will not be the same after January 1st, and that the revolution will be “hard” the next two years.

Since several days Colombia’s ex president Alvaro Uribe has denounced this coup d’état – a legal coup using the same methods that Adolf Hitler used in the Spring of 1933 – in Spanish language media. Wednesday evening Reuters became first among major English language media with the news.

The fact that this is being reported as a coup abroad has led Venezuelan tweeters to use the hashtag #GolpeEstadoVE to the degree that it climbed to a top position, which provoked the reaction below.

Reactions to the fact that "coup d'état" was a leading hashtag.
Reactions to the fact that "coup d'état" was a trend topic.

First “lubrio” wrote, “they put coup as Trend Topic… I’m afraid, they are at the verge of overthrowing Chávez, o God!” Judging from his avatar he is a hard core chavista. Last “sombrerorojo” (red hat) wrote, “Did you see? Coup is Trend Topic! -Are you serious? -Damn, today the tyrant will fall.”

While that may be a bit rash, there is a real possibility that he will fall within a week or two. However, it is largely in the hands of foreign leaders.

How, you ask? -Simple. If countries with which Venezuela has diplomatic relations state that what Chávez is doing in their opinion is a coup d’état, then the security forces of Venezuela (read: the military) will much, much more prone to arrest him than otherwise.

Consider Honduras, where a similar situation happened last year. Zelaya was carrying out a coup, but the world did not acknowledge it. So when he was arrested by the military the world called it a coup, even though they were acting on orders of the Supreme Court, and the vast majority of the Congress supported the action.

In Venezuela today neither the Congress nor the Court is going to back the military in such an act, since both those institutions are dominated by Chávez-supporters. The Congress is key in carrying out the unconstitutional acts, and the Court is hardly impartial.

The only thing the military in such an act can rely on is its independent interpretation of the Constitution. There are a number of different arguments that can be made for why deposing Chávez by military force would be justified, but they should not be litigated here. Let that be for a possible court case after the fact.

The bottom line is that it is largely in the hands of foreign leaders to decide the outcome of this; if Chávez will be as successful as Hitler, or if his coup plans will be foiled. So, please, denounce this coup for what it is: A coup.

Media: DN (Swedish)

Mob Violence in Nicaragua is a Coup d’État

A violent street mob in Nicaragua is trying to prevent the democratically elected Congress from convening in order to declare an action by the president illegal. The police is not stopping the mob violence.

This is the first step towards a coup d’état. The international community must take steps now to stop the erosion of democracy. The Organization of American States, OAS, has tools at its disposal for intervening. Failure to intervene now would be disastrous for the credibility of OAS; the little that is left after it assisted Honduras’s president Manuel Zelaya in his coup plans last year.

If the mob is not stopped, and the Congress is not able to carry out their duty, then the only tool left to prevent a coup d’état by the president is to use coup d’état-like methods against the president. As I have argued here that is defensible, but it will lead to the international community turning against the democratic institutions, instead defending the wannabe coupster Ortega.

As those who have followed the development in Honduras closely know, that is just what happened there last year. A mob headed by the president stole ballots that were in the custody of the court, which was trying to prevent a coup d’état. The international community should have taken forceful action against Zelaya at that point, but they failed. That was, as the kids say, the “epic fail” of the conflict.

My call to the international community is to take forceful action against Daniel Ortega’s government now:

-Regard this event as a full-blown attempt at a creeping coup d’état, because if you don’t, you will face another Epic Fail in Central America!

Defending a Coup d’État, Can You?

My argument is based on self defense. Just like we don’t call a person who kills his would-be murderor a murderor, we should not call someone a coupster for using the methods of a coup d’état to foil a coup d’état, in order to save the State in an emergency.

A source of confusion, and an origin of different interpretations of the legality of the events in Honduras in June, 2009, is the fact that the term coup d’état (golpe de Estado) is widely used but not defined. I have some news to report on the ongoing activities of the self-denominated “resistance against the coup d’état,” but before doing that it is convenient to analyze what the term coup d’état really means. Of course, this is strictly speaking redundant since there are legal terms for all these crimes, but since coup is so widely used in common speech it may still serve a purpose.

The Human Rights Foundation has tabulated a number of definitions in their report The Facts and the Law behind the democratic crisis of Honduras, 2009 : A Constitutional and International Democracy Law Analysis (March, 2010; pp. 96-98). In my humble opinion, they are virtually all wrong, though, in that they consider that in order to be a coup, the victim must be the chief executive. Parenthetically they do not even consider the possibility of a parliamentarian system with a separate head of state and head of government: which of the two is the chief executive for the purpose of the coup? Only one source listed any branch of government as the victim.

So is Mel Zelaya a victim? Not if you ask me. He was just a servant to his people, elected to work for them. He can impossibly be a victim in his capacity as president (only as an individual person whose human rights were violated, e.g., by being arrested without due process). The president is an abstract function, the holder of an office, not a person of flesh and blood. Make this mental experiment: Assume that we could develop a robot that could fill the role of president, and that a coup was made against it. Would that robot then have human rights? Of course not. We have to separate person from office. There is a dangerous and strong tendency today (at least in the U.S.) not to do so. That path leads to monarchy. Do we want to go there?

Therefore we must conclude that the victim of a coup is not a single person, or even a group of persons. Literally, the victim of a coup d’état is the state. This is exactly what coup d’état means: A strike against the state (golpe de estado). And what defines the state? –The Constitution.

Having defined that a coup d’état is directed against the constitution, and neither against an individual nor against an office, things get clearer conceptually. Unless the following events result from a revolution or a foreign occupation (in which case they are typically declared null and void by the constitution anyway), they would qualify as a coup d’état:

  1. Changing the constitution by means not allowed for by the constitution
  2. Someone occupying the top level of any independent branch of government who should not hold that position if the constitution had been followed

It seems to me that these two points capture all cases. As to manner of execution, the use of either force, coercion, or fraud may be part of a coup, but at the very least a swiftness that overruns the checks and balances and puts them before a fait accompli. Coups are a threat to all democratic organizations, not just states. It is to avoid coups that certain meeting rules exist, such as stipulating that for a decision to be valid all participants must have been informed a certain time in advance, and that no decision can be taken on an item not on the distributed agenda.

The ways a constitution can legally be changed are:

  1. By any means explicitly allowed for in the constitution itself, or
  2. the state fails to the point where it ceases to exist, why a constituting assembly is held to re-establish it.

It should be noted that point 2 refers to cases where there are no legitimate office-holders, and no constitutional way to re-populate the offices.

Some of the unconstitutional ways to change a constitution are:

  1. The constitution is overthrown by an insurrection (popularly known as a revolution),
  2. the constitution is changed while under foreign occupation after a war, and
  3. it is altered by the sitting government in ways not expressly allowed for by the constitution itself.

Point 3 would be an autogolpe, or self-coup, but a self-coup could also be to violate the constitution by sitting beyond term limits, without formally changing it. Points 1 and 2 are typically explicitly illegal in mature constitutions.

If we look at Latin America in recent years, several countries have gone around the presidential term limit by first changing the constitution. As long as this change is permissible, it is legal, but if the change was illegal then the old constitution would still be the valid one, and a coup d’état would have occurred.

Applied to Honduras

If we apply this to the Honduran political crisis of 2009, we see that then-president Manuel Zelaya overtly tried to bring about a constituting constitutional assembly, knowing full well that it was unconstitutional. He was thus attempting to commit a coup d’état, but his plans were foiled.  Manuel Zelaya was the coupster in Honduras June 28, 2009.

The crucial days were from June 24. Until then he had (or he believed he had) the support of the military for implementing the unconstitutional national vote that he had labeled a poll. However, June 24 the military had run out of rope; they had to inform the president that they were unable to obey since their orders were illegal.

Until June 24th Zelaya had been attempting to steamroll the other branches of government by using the threat of military force. In fact, he had started threatening force already to try to stack the Supreme Court early in the year, but backed down in the face-off with Micheletti, then the president of Congress. This was most fortunate indeed, since if Zelaya had succeeded, there might have been no legal way to stop his coup.

As things developed, the Supreme Court put legal pressure on the military, and that way they were able to remove Zelaya’s ability to use the threat of force in his coup plans. Incidentally, the new president, Lobo, has now removed the chief justice who stopped Zelaya’s coup.

While Zelaya tried to change the constitution illegally (and he openly admits to his plans, although he doesn’t call his attempted coup a coup), Micheletti has been accused of having come to power in a way not allowed for by the constitution, in a “military coup d’état.” As I linked to in the previous entry, although the events and formalities were those of a military coup, followed by an unconstitutional change of president by Congress (i.e., an impeachment coup), followed by a tacit approval by the Supreme Court, the HRF report concludes that the exact same thing could have been accomplished completely legally and constitutionally.

If all actors had done their duty and dealt with the coupsters according to the law, the result would have been the same: Micheletti would have become interim president.

If we accept the legal analysis of HRF’s report, by their definition this was a coup because of the manner in which Micheletti was appointed. However, this is just a formality. If the democratic institutions had corrected their errors, Micheletti would still have become the interim president. It’s a coup in form, not in substance. With my definition above, if the Supreme Court corrects themselves, there will have been no coup since the definition focuses on substance, not form. (Congress’s report says that the appointment was constitutional and thus no coup at all.)

So why the error in form when it was not necessary, just harmful to the country?

There was surely a degree of panic. Their main ally, the U.S., had seemingly abandoned them and thrown their support behind the coupster, who in turn was a front man for Chávez, an ally of Castro.

There was also uncertainty about who could be trusted. If neither the OAS nor the U.S. could be trusted, then who?

Time was running out. At 6 AM on June 28th the illegal poll would start. It was expected that Zelaya, knowing that time was working against his coup plans, would jump a couple of steps and appoint the Constituyente immediately after the close of the poll – and that the result of the poll was pre-determined. This was later confirmed when fake poll results were found. Furthermore, inside sources have told me that Zelaya planned to appoint Patricia Rodas to arrange the constituting assembly, and that she would return the favor by appointing Zelaya as the Constituyente – in other words, a chief executive that is above all laws.

Does this sound absurd? Well, read websites reporting on the activities of the self-denominated resistance movement. They argue that this is legal. They don’t see any illegality in it. People I have talked to in Honduras who support the “resistencia” have completely swallowed the rhetoric from Radio Globo and others, this new-speak. They fail to recognize that it is demagoguery as old as democracy itself, used already by the old Greeks whenever a tyrant conspired to take over a democracy with the support of the poorly educated people, a mob turned against their own self-interest.

Returning to the events June 24 to 28, the military had opposed Zelaya. Given how they had taken a public stand, failure was not an option. In combination with the uncertainty of who the enemy was (wolves in sheep’s clothing, corrupt officials, and the risk of foreign armed infiltrators), it is understandable that they trusted nobody but themselves with making sure Zelaya could not exert influence in Honduras – which surely is why they exiled him.

From their point of view their mission was to defend the State against a coup d’état by their own commander in chief. This was not a situation of normal police work; this was an existential threat to the State. Therefore I think the decision of the Supreme Court to free the military leadership of responsibility for having sent Zelaya abroad instead of to jail was correct. If the military had followed orders and arrested him, there was a real risk that the coup d’état would have succeeded, given the powerful friends that Zelaya appeared to have (not primarily Chávez, but OAS and USA), who could quite likely have used their influence to free him.

The impeachment coup that HRF concludes that Congress committed has to be seen in the same vein. In the face of an imminent threat (including a military threat by Venezuela), it was imperative that an interim president immediately take control over the government, so that the State could defend itself. With Zelaya in Costa Rica the Supreme Court could not follow procedure in the criminal case against him. This, I presume, created a situation in which ad hoc solutions were taken without much contemplation over the consequences. Bringing up the letter that Zelaya presumably wrote June 25 when an attempt was made to make him resign, is a prime example of an ad hoc solution that back-fired.

Like Javier El-Hage, the author of the HRF report, I used to think that a coup is never justified. However, the case can be argued. Consider murder. Shooting someone in self-defense as a last resort is allowed in every jurisdiction I am aware of. The same standard has to be applied to coup d’états. We have to allow a coup d’état in order to stop a coup d’état, if the threat is imminent and there is no other realistic defense.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but yes, I have concluded that a coup can be defended if done in defense of the State against a hostile coup. This was the case in Honduras; the military on the face of it committed a coup, and according to the HRF report, Congress then committed an impeachment coup, but the objective in both cases was only to defend the Constitution, and nothing they did resulted in anything but making sure that the order of succession was honored, and that the Constitution remained in force.

How can anyone object to that?

PS. As I stated initially this is really of academic interest only, since coup is not a legal term. The legal violations that allegedly were carried out on June 28th in defense of democracy must be weighed against the context of the situation. Also, if neither the constitution was changed (criterion 1 above), nor any office-holder was appointed contrary to the constitution (criterion 2), can it then really be said to have been a coup, regardless of formalities?

Published 2010-04-20 16:40, last edited 2010-04-22 21:00.