Saving Democracy in the Honduran 'Coup'

What is being billed as the "first military coup in Central America since the Cold War" occurred early Sunday morning, June 28. The president of Honduras, Jose Manuel Zelaya, was arrested at his residence by members of the Honduran army. His arrest came only hours before he planned to hold an unofficial vote to determine support for his desire to change Honduran law and run for re-election. Per his request, he was flown to Costa Rica where he had asked for asylum.

At first glance this event seems to be another instance of long term democracy's peril in Central America. After all, Central and South America have seen more coups in post-colonial history than a large flock of doves released at a wedding.

Condemnation of President Zelaya's arrest and exile was swift; President Obama said he was "deeply concerned" and leaders of the European Union, along with Secretary of State Clinton, have condemned the military's actions. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela and close friend of the leftist Zelaya, has vowed to overthrow whatever successor is chosen to serve the remainder of Zelaya's term.

I am not convinced that the military committed a coup d'etat, per se. With such widespread reaction abroad, what was the reaction from the other branches of the Honduran government?

Interestingly, the Honduran Congress (including members of Zelaya's own Liberal Party) gave the military a standing ovation, and the Honduran Supreme Court said the military was acting on their orders. In a statement released on Honduran radio, the court said that the military "acted to defend the rule of law."

This raises the question of what is actually happening in Honduras; for the goal of the military's actions cannot be both a coup and the defense of the rule of law (the actions themselves can be a hybrid, however). Only time will tell, but I believe two factors are present which support the view that the military was acting to protect the Honduran constitution.

1. Zelaya was acting less like a democratically elected president and more like a Bolivarian Revolutionist in the making. The actions that precipitated his removal were in direct contradiction to the Honduran Constitution, which limits presidential tenure to one term. His presidency has been marked by moving the country further left, and his attempt to change the constitution drove a wedge between his office and the rest of the Honduran government. Both the Supreme Court and the attorney general labeled his plans to hold a "constitutional referendum" illegal, yet he was prepared to proceed forward regardless.

2. The Honduran Constitution was followed in the selection of the "acting president." Roberto Micheletti, who happens to be a member of Zelaya's Liberal Party, was a congressional leader until sworn in as president until January 27, 2010. Furthermore, the government released a statement today indicating that the presidential elections will occur as scheduled this November.

If this is a coup, then it is unlike almost any other in history. The former president is alive and safe, albeit out of power and in another country. An acting president has been named per the constitution, and presidential elections will still be held this fall. Also, the differing political parties have come together to support the removal of the former president. As it stands, the only government leaders labeling this a coup are the ex-president himself and leaders of other countries, especially those with personal socialist or Marxist leanings.

There is still a subject open for debate, though. Politics, unlike morality, is rarely defined in black and white; it usually takes place in shades of gray. For those interested in political philosophy, there are issues present which make this event very interesting. One of the questions most relevant to removal and replacement of the president is who violated the Honduran Constitution, and thus their contractual obligations: the military, Zelaya or both?

This is especially pertinent if examined in light of the social contract theory of social order. The argument can be framed in the following way. President Zelaya, who was duly elected by the consent of the people of Honduras, was taking actions that were determined to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Rather than stopping his actions, or at least aligning them with the Constitution, Zelaya sought to change the Constitution according to his desires. As a result, the Supreme Court, with the tacit consent of Congress, ordered the military to remove him as president. However, most constitutions have clearly defined methods for the removal of an office-holder, usually through election or impeachment.

Does the Honduran Constitution allow the military to remove a constitutionally elected president at the discretion of Congress and the Supreme Court? Most likely it does not. Therefore, even though the intent was the defense of the rule of law, the actions themselves may have been unconstitutional. Acceptance of this conclusion leads to another question: if the president was removed from office for actions determined to be unconstitutional, what should happen to Congress and the Supreme Court for doing the same thing? Logically, they should be declared to have acted unconstitutionally and also removed from office.

What would Honduras be like if every national office holder was removed? The situation would be ripe for someone like Hugo Chavez to intervene and set up a puppet government. Who would suffer then? The citizens of Honduras.

Fortunately, John Locke anticipated a scenario like the one above and developed the "right of rebellion" theory in his "Two Treatises of Government." Simply put, citizens have the right to rebel against a government when its actions lead to tyranny.

The remaining question is whether or not Zelaya's actions were leading to tyranny. I believe they were -- since he ignored both the Constitution and the Supreme Court in his efforts to be re-elected as president. (It is interesting to note that his friend and close ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, succeeded this past February in passing a constitutional referendum eliminating presidential term limits. However, he did so with the consent of the National Assembly, whereas the Honduran Congress was against such a referendum.) According to Locke's theory, because Zelaya's actions were leading to tyranny, the military's response was justified as a defense of the rule of law.

Like John Locke and the American founding fathers, the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court realized that the threat of tyranny requires an immediate and decisive response. We should be glad they acted before Honduras fell to the Bolivarian Revolution and went the way of Venezuela.
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