What to Do About a Coup

How does a secretary of state decide whether and when to put the United States on record regarding what appears to be a coup -- the decision of a sitting ruler to remain in place in contravention of the terms of the country's constitution?

The Venezuelan Constitution is clear.

  • The oath of office has to be administered on 10 January before the National Assembly. If the president-elect "cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly [suggesting that the Assembly cannot meet, not that the President doesn't show up], he shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice." Article 231
  • If the president is temporarily unavailable, the executive vice president can serve as president for up to 90 days, extendable by the National Assembly for another 90. "If the temporarily unavailability continues for more than 90 consecutive days, the National Assembly shall have the power to decide ... whether the unavailability to serve should be considered permanent." Article 234
    • "Permanent physical or mental disability [must be] certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly[.]" Article 233
  • "When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election ... shall be held within 30 consecutive days," during which time the president of the National Assembly will serve as president. Article 233
Nevertheless, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro simply announced this past weekend that ailing and absent President Hugo Chávez can start his new term without being sworn in at all.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has been in this position -- it is the third.  And the first two times, they got it wrong.

In July 2009, Honduras had a constitutional crisis.  Then-President Manuel Zelaya attempted to hold an illegal referendum to gain an illegal third term. The other arms of the Honduran democratic establishment -- Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Human Rights Council, the Army, and the Catholic Church -- came together to defend the Constitution, remove Zelaya and go forward with previously scheduled elections, minus Zelaya.

In response, the United States -- following the lead of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua -- agreed to the suspension of Honduras from the OAS.  The administration made the Honduran ambassador persona non grata, cut off $31 million in Millennium Challenge aid for which Honduras had already qualified, held up visas, and denounced the ouster of Zelaya as a "military coup," although the military at no time ran the country. 

The State Department reconsidered and ultimately supported the Honduran government elected in the vote Zelaya tried to subvert, but despite Secretary Clinton's pleas, the OAS did not reinstate Honduras until June 2011.

The Nicaraguan Constitution clearly said (note the past tense) two terms and no more.  After pounding Honduras into the ground, you might have thought a third term in 2011 by then-and-now-President Daniel Ortega would have brought a similar outcry by the United States.  But Ortega, having castigated President Obama in public for nearly an hour at an OAS meeting in 2009 and receiving only a mild joke from the president in response, appears to have thought otherwise.  Ortega simply had a stacked Supreme Court declare term limits unconstitutional because they violated his personal political right to run for office.  In 2010, Ortega declared a national holiday and inserted non-term-limiting articles into a newly reprinted Constitution while the Parliament was gone -- except for the members of his own Sandinista National Liberation Front, who knew not to leave town.

Ortega, ally of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, and former Soviet surrogate and PLO supporter, ran and won.

Now Chávez.

Since Secretary Clinton is preparing to turn the reins of the State Department over to Sen. John Kerry, formerly chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is worth noting Sen. Kerry's response to the Honduran crisis.

Sen. Jim DeMint tried to visit Honduras shortly after Zelaya's ouster to bring back on-the-ground information, but Kerry forbade an official trip, cutting off funds for the flight -- an unprecedented step for a committee chairman.  Sen. Kerry tried to exchange permission for the trip for the release of DeMint's hold on two administration appointees -- but Sen. DeMint declined and went without "authorization."  No matter to Sen. Kerry.  "'We made our point,' Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones told The Boston Globe. 'The authorization was not going to come from Chairman Kerry.'"

Why Sen. Kerry wouldn't have wanted on-the-spot reporting from a colleague is unclear, except for the obvious fact that Sen. DeMint is a Republican.  His upcoming confirmation hearing would be an excellent time to ask him about the importance of adherence to the Constitution and how he, as secretary of state, plans to deal with countries in constitutional crisis.  And whether left-wing countries like Venezuela will get special breaks à la Ortega in Nicaragua, while others receive the back of the American hand. 

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.

How does a secretary of state decide whether and when to put the United States on record regarding what appears to be a coup -- the decision of a sitting ruler to remain in place in contravention of the terms of the country's constitution?

The Venezuelan Constitution is clear.

  • The oath of office has to be administered on 10 January before the National Assembly. If the president-elect "cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly [suggesting that the Assembly cannot meet, not that the President doesn't show up], he shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice." Article 231
  • If the president is temporarily unavailable, the executive vice president can serve as president for up to 90 days, extendable by the National Assembly for another 90. "If the temporarily unavailability continues for more than 90 consecutive days, the National Assembly shall have the power to decide ... whether the unavailability to serve should be considered permanent." Article 234
    • "Permanent physical or mental disability [must be] certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly[.]" Article 233
  • "When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election ... shall be held within 30 consecutive days," during which time the president of the National Assembly will serve as president. Article 233

Nevertheless, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro simply announced this past weekend that ailing and absent President Hugo Chávez can start his new term without being sworn in at all.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has been in this position -- it is the third.  And the first two times, they got it wrong.

In July 2009, Honduras had a constitutional crisis.  Then-President Manuel Zelaya attempted to hold an illegal referendum to gain an illegal third term. The other arms of the Honduran democratic establishment -- Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Human Rights Council, the Army, and the Catholic Church -- came together to defend the Constitution, remove Zelaya and go forward with previously scheduled elections, minus Zelaya.

In response, the United States -- following the lead of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua -- agreed to the suspension of Honduras from the OAS.  The administration made the Honduran ambassador persona non grata, cut off $31 million in Millennium Challenge aid for which Honduras had already qualified, held up visas, and denounced the ouster of Zelaya as a "military coup," although the military at no time ran the country. 

The State Department reconsidered and ultimately supported the Honduran government elected in the vote Zelaya tried to subvert, but despite Secretary Clinton's pleas, the OAS did not reinstate Honduras until June 2011.

The Nicaraguan Constitution clearly said (note the past tense) two terms and no more.  After pounding Honduras into the ground, you might have thought a third term in 2011 by then-and-now-President Daniel Ortega would have brought a similar outcry by the United States.  But Ortega, having castigated President Obama in public for nearly an hour at an OAS meeting in 2009 and receiving only a mild joke from the president in response, appears to have thought otherwise.  Ortega simply had a stacked Supreme Court declare term limits unconstitutional because they violated his personal political right to run for office.  In 2010, Ortega declared a national holiday and inserted non-term-limiting articles into a newly reprinted Constitution while the Parliament was gone -- except for the members of his own Sandinista National Liberation Front, who knew not to leave town.

Ortega, ally of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, and former Soviet surrogate and PLO supporter, ran and won.

Now Chávez.

Since Secretary Clinton is preparing to turn the reins of the State Department over to Sen. John Kerry, formerly chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is worth noting Sen. Kerry's response to the Honduran crisis.

Sen. Jim DeMint tried to visit Honduras shortly after Zelaya's ouster to bring back on-the-ground information, but Kerry forbade an official trip, cutting off funds for the flight -- an unprecedented step for a committee chairman.  Sen. Kerry tried to exchange permission for the trip for the release of DeMint's hold on two administration appointees -- but Sen. DeMint declined and went without "authorization."  No matter to Sen. Kerry.  "'We made our point,' Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones told The Boston Globe. 'The authorization was not going to come from Chairman Kerry.'"

Why Sen. Kerry wouldn't have wanted on-the-spot reporting from a colleague is unclear, except for the obvious fact that Sen. DeMint is a Republican.  His upcoming confirmation hearing would be an excellent time to ask him about the importance of adherence to the Constitution and how he, as secretary of state, plans to deal with countries in constitutional crisis.  And whether left-wing countries like Venezuela will get special breaks à la Ortega in Nicaragua, while others receive the back of the American hand. 

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.

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