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The Coup d'Etat in Honduras: Character, Evolution and Perspectives

By Leticia Salomón (translated by Adrienne Pine)
July 07, 2009 -

This article is a continuation of an article written and distributed on July 29th, titled "Honduras: Políticos, empresarios y militares: protagonistas de un golpe anunciado" (posted in Spanish earlier on Leticia Salomón is an Honduran sociologist and economist who specializes in defense, security and governability.

A. The Polarization Intensifies

The coup d'etat carried out in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday June 28th has been evolving and incorporating new elements from the national and international context. The different parties refine their strategies, reaffirm their positions, work on their image and constantly evaluate their situation. Both sides know well that time is important, that deadlines approach and that the situation must resolve itself in a very short time. Internally both groups combine their forces (businessmen, churches and the media, involving their employees and congregation, and the other side rallying new social forces: teachers, women, indigenous groups, and local and regional NGOs), and meanwhile on the international scene the balance tilts totally to one side, in this case toward the consitutional president of the republic. In these days as the deadline of the OAS approaches, the side of the [de facto] president reactivates lawsuits, generates arrest warrants that not previously carried out against ex-functionaries and issue back-dated arrest warrants to defend their accusations against the president.

While the group that supports the de facto president intensifies the methods of force to control actions of resistence, prolonging the state of siege, suspending individual guarantees for 72 hours and stopping the protesters who try to reach the capitol—the side of the constitutional president capitalizing on citizen outrage at the repression—they increase their internal support with people and organizations who have questioned [Zelaya] in his governing approach and his insistence on the 4th ballot box, and redefine their mobilizing strategy, focusing on the regional capitols, obligating protesters to break the military/police siege, crossing mountains on foot, due to the heavy control of roads.

While the former group protects the protesters who support the de facto president with "street cleaning" actions and direct protection from the military and police, it also represses the protesters who question it, blocks passage on highways, shoot tires of vehicles that don't stop, and forces passengers in urban and inter-urban buses in high traffic areas to get out to prevent them from concentrating in protests in support of the constitutional president.

The side of the de facto president intensifies the accusations of corruption, Chavista interference, violation to the constitution, drug trafficking, anarchy, and mental disequilibrium of the president and complicity of his allies, hoping to achieve a popular outrage against the possible return of the constitutional president that is stronger than the actions of the OAS and the countries and institutions that have called for [his return].

The group of the constitutional president tries to open a space in the legal system that has been shut off in turn by the de facto president, bringing a legal case to the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court, requesting that, as a precautionary measure, the immediate repatriation of President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales. While the National Commission of Human Rights remains firm in its support of the de facto president (it has maintained personal and institutional silence before the violation of constitutional guarantees brought about by the state of siege and the repression of protesters), the civil rights organizations CODEH and COFADEH show their increasing support for the constitutional president.

The strategy of the de facto president toward the exterior is not fully defined and instead of progressing is confronting numerous complications. One of these is related to the fact that the de facto president himself as yet seems incapable of bringing coherence and legitimacy to his explanations for his involvement in the coup d'etat, falling into numerous contradictions before the international press. Another is related to the de facto foreign minister (Canciller) who looks at the world like a village and has an inadequate understanding of international relations; finally, the fiasco of calling key ambassadors to come to Tegucigalpa to receive instructions or dismiss them depending on the case, since to date they have only received the unconditional support of the ambassador of Honduras in Washington who confirms with great certainty, without having been in the country, that there was no coup d'etat here [in Honduras], and neither was there a breach of constitutional order, thus supporting the de facto president. Less exposed to public opinion, but following his lead, is the ambassador of Honduras in Brussels, who is the son of the National Commisioner of Human Rights.

B. The National Context

1. Revision of the constitutional order

The group of the de facto president is having difficulty maintaining that what happened in Honduras on Sunday the 28th was a simple and normal substitution. They cannot explain why they presented a supposed resignation of the constitutional president dated the 25th yet not accepted until the 28th, and much less why an arrest order issued by a court judge was addressed in writing to the Joint Chief of Staff on the 26th, when this is exclusively a police matter, nor can they explain why this order was not channeled legally through the Secretary of Defense. Much less can they explain why the Joint Chief of Staff, in a decision coordinated with the military junta, executed the order to arrest a supposed delinquent, who in addition was their superior and, instead of bringing him to the courts to be tried, burst into his house, brought him against his will to the Air Force and sent him to another country. What is interesting about this case is that when the foreign journalists questioned him about some of these concerns the de facto president claimed he knew nothing about it and sent them to those who ordered and carried out the act, openly alluding to the judge who signed the order and the army official who carried it out or ordered it to be carried out, who was the Joint Chief of Staff.

No matter how the de facto president's side tries to structure a minimally acceptable explanation, advised by lawyers, politicians in the tradition of the coup and active and retired military officials with plenty of experience in such activities, they cannot explain why they prevented a president elected by a majority of votes in 2005 from finishing his term in office, if in the country the mandate has not been annulled, nor did the National Congress have this power, less so since it did not carry out a legal process that respected the dignity of the presidency.

The side of the de facto president has insisted on claiming that their has been no coup d'etat and cites in its defense a collection of reasons, comparisons and justifications trying to avoid the obvious: that by condeming the president (to exile) without due process they violated the constitution, when they named a substitute under dubious circumstances, and when they carried out numerous similarly law-breaking and violent activities, related to the following: establishing a state of siege that impides the free circulation of citizens for five days with the possibility of extension; the closing of radios and television channels with ties to the constitutional government; preventing journalists from discussing the constitutional president (and no restrictions for those who oppose him); repression of the protests in favor of the constitutional president (and protection for those in favor of the de facto government); arresting people who are relations or allies of the constitutional president (who remain imprisoned or are expelled from the country); the appearance of the Joint Chief of Staff at the side of the de facto President in public gatherings, when there is a constitutional mandate establishing that the Armed Forces are subject to the civil government, apolitical, and without deliberative power.

2. The judicial system at the service of the coup

The judicial system, strongly partisan, has been transformed into a legal facilitator of the coup. This situation remains at present and the attitude of the highest representatives of the judicial branch has been evident in interviews on national and international channels, in particular the president of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Attorney General, forgetting the presumption of innocence and assuming the guilt of the president, without having submitted him to an open and transparent trial, following the law and without partisan political bias.

3. Military-political involvement in the coup.

Internationally, the most intensive activity is maintained by the constitutional president and, in the national arena the de facto president, the Armed Forces, the Police, the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court of Justice. All the other political actors have assumed a role of attentive observers of the process, always ready to lend their support. This is the case of the National Congress, the Attorney General's office, and the National Human Rights Commissioner.

4. Economic-religious and media involvement in supporting [the coup]

Businesspeople actively support [the coup], knowing that the days approaching the decision of the OAS are fundamental in order to gain a certain space in the international arena; that is why they have mobilized their employees to participate in public protests, which they themselves organize and partially finance. The churches assure the military and police protection, give instructions and mobilize their congragations. The media continue with a unified defense of the coup d'etat, with the exception of Diario Tiempo and Radio Progreso in the north of the country; the lesser media has opened a bit but continue firmly positioned on the side of the de facto president, which means that the level of disinformation about what is happening with the protests in favor of the constitutional president remains high. The internet facilitates international and national communication that has made it possible to know what is going on in the remote regions of the country, and about the insurrections and support of people, groups and institutions that are rapidly spread among all their contacts.

5. Organization of the de facto government and distribution of power

Slowly but steadily the de facto government has been organizing and distributing power among the participants in the coup process, including retired military officers, something which should draw attention toward a possible remilitarization of the State, this time with retired military officials occupying key positions tied to national security, positions which up to now have been in civilian hands. A dangerous message has been sent with the naming of an ex-intelligence official in the national Migration Agency, with the expectation that [such individuals] will also be placed in other key positions like the Merchant Marines and the National Port Authority.

6. Manipulation of public opinion

The protests in favor of the de facto president are replete with frontal attacks using subliminal messages: the attacks come from politicians, businesspeople and media (the intrusion of Chavez, lack of respect for legality, provocative and deceitful epithets) and messages (God, peace, democracy, dialogue, stability, order, fatherland and non-violence) in addition to white shirts, Honduran flags, signing of the national anthem, revealing a marked religious influence (actually, the leaders of the Catholic and evangelical churches have supported the coup d'etat and have constituted a key factor, together with the businessmen, in the mobilization of marchers). One interesting fact to note is that the subject/object of mobilization has been gradually changing. From supporting Micheletti they have been moved to "support democracy" in an attempt to deoersonalize the adherence to the coup cause, trying to maintain an integrated force that includes all religious preferences and respects the partisan preferences of the marchers, which combines very well with the role of the media and affirms the de facto president when he finalizes his public appearances saying: "God is with us!"

C. The International Context

1. Rejection of the coup

The rejection of the alteration of constitutional order in Honduras by regional and international countries and organizations has been fundamental at this moment. It is clear to all that the unifying element among the diversity has been the condemnation of a practice of the past that reappears as a threat to the democratic processes under construction in our continent—a process undertaken with difficulty but resolve. Academic, labor and human rights activists—individuals and organizations—have added their voice to the protest and have condemned the coup d'etat of this June 28th.

The occasion constitutes a great test to know and assess the level of international commitment to the stability of legitimately constituted governments. The message has been (and should be) clear, not just for the members of the military who have always been distrusting spectators on the sidelines of democratic processes that they cannot understand, but also for the politicians who become embroiled in intra- and interpartisan rivalries that undermine their legitimacy and that of the institutions into which they insert themselves.

2. The ideology of the coup in the international context

a. The Role of the United States

Misgivings, mistrust and many doubts related to the authoritarian past have created a climate of suspicion, at time extreme, in relation to the role of the United States in the recent coup d'etat. The traditional subordination of the Armed Forces to U.S. interests and the role that U.S. ambassadors play or have played to dissolve domestic political or social conflicts, are all too well known in our country and our America. From there comes the importance of the role played by the United States with respect to the coup d'etat, knowing that it finds itself in a rather uncomfortable situation: To claim that that they knew about it and could not do anything to stop it (because they were not capable of controlling their accomplices in a coup adventure), an argument with very little credibility, or that they knew about the decision and did not want to do anything (because they possessed an inadequate reading of the facts and circumstances, or because they wanted to see which direction that the events would take)—an argument with more credibility than the previous one—if we relate it with certain facts that could influence this decision, like the mutual antipathy between the president and the legislators off the National Congress, the business sector's rejection of the president for his "social excesses," discomfort with the president's style of speech and action (confrontative, mocking, rash, frank, direct) and understandable suspicions about the public raprochement between Zelaya and Chavez. What is odd about the case is that the constitutional president only had seven months of his term left, neither of the presidential candidates have leftist inclinationes, and furthermore there was not even a remote threat that the president would convene a national constituent assembly (the actions themselves invalidate this threat, but it is so laughable that it is almost impossible to believe: supporting (yes or no) the placement of a fourth ballot box in the general elections in November, to vote for the installation of a national constituent assembly to review and create a new Constitution of the Republic. Creating it would be under the authority of the National Congress and never of the President of the Republic because he does not have these duties).

b. The Role of Chavez

The manipulation being carried out in the rural sectors of the country in relation to worn-out ideological ghosts (Democracy/Communism) influencing public opinion through churches and the media, is contributing to the growing polarization of Honduran society. In the confrontation we are seeing the hand of Chavez's defenders and detractors, which tends to minimize the key aspect of the coup which was and continues to be the violation of the Constitution of the Republic, from the moment in which the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the arrest of the constitutional president of the republic without having initiated and carried out a trial, a situation that was exacerbated by the Armed Forces that carried out the order and decided, according to a completely deformed arbitrary power, that the best thing for the country would be his expulsion from the country.

To accept these criteria and insert the coup d'etat into the context of ideological differences that can be observed in our continent is a mistake that tends, as usual, to minimize internal causes and to force a way out involving other countries and other ideologies. The coup d'etat in Honduras should motivate people who study the theme to carry out in-depth, responsible and integrated analyses incorporating the elements that have flowered and erupted in Honduras, and which can occur in other contries on the continent, taking into consideration, of course, the differences that occur in their respective processes of democratic development. Just as in Honduras the question of whether one is for or against the constitutional president has ceded to the difference between those who are for and those who are against the coup d'etat in Honduras, in the same way international analists and researchers should should take great pains to not insert the theme of the coup d'etat in Honduras in an ideological context polarized between those who are with Chavez and those who are with the United States, because they would divert attention from the real situation to a possible [but not actual] situation that is longed for by some and manipulated by others.

D. Key Elements in the Solution to the Conflict

There are three key elements that must be confronted in order to find a solution to the conflict evidenced by the coup d'etat: a) Restitution of the constitutional president to his position, b) Removing all those who broke the law from office and c) Agreeing to create an new constitution. Nothing else is required to resolve the crisis because the November elections have never been in doubt and the friendship of the constitutional president with Chavez does not constitute a threat to the country.

Restitution of the constitutional president to his position

This action will be fundamental for the political and social stability of the country and to guarantee the normal development of general elections next November. In the same way, to prevent future presidents from being exposed to the interference of other powers of the State that make it impossible for [him] to finish the term of office for which [he] was elected. This should occur independently of a) the number of people who acclaim him (he is not obligated to demonstrate popularity because he already demonstrated it in the November 2005 elections), b) the opinion of people or groups about his competence (no reverse mandate exists in the country), c) the number of accusations that are made against him (if they have a legal basis he should go to trial), d) the antipathy that politicians, the business elite and religious leaders have for him, e) whatever responsibility he may have for the polarization of the conflict (in the same way that we reject the neckline of a dress as being the cause of a rape) and g) the antipathy that the Junta of Military Commanders has for him.

Removing all those who broke the law from office

This includes a) the president of the republic, who once restored to his position should confront the accusations made against him, and against which he has not been given a chance to defend himself. Given the partisan politicization of the Supreme Court of Justice and the antecedent in which they have already publicly expressed opinions about the accused whom they are supposed to judge, actions which do not guarantee a fair trial, he should be assured of the participation of international judges; b) lawsuits must be brought against the Supreme Court judge who signed the arrest warrant for the President of the Republic, without respect for due process, c) against the Attorney General of the Republic, who requested the arrest warrant and has publicly demonstrated disdain for the accused, d) against the Junta of Military Commanders who obeyed an illegal order and committed the crime of expelling a citizen of this country who furthermore was their commander-in-chief by force from Honduran territory and e) against the then-president of the National Congress and current de facto president, for falsifying public documents in order to alter the constitutional order, like the supposed letter of resignation of the constitutional president of the republic. There should be a public trial a) against the the institutions of justice (the Supreme Court, public ministry and police) for committing an outrage against the rule of law and contributing to the breach of constitutional order, b) against the National Congress for its active contribution to the breach of constitutional order, c) against the political parties, as institutions that maintained complicit silence about everything their activists in all branches of the State were doing, a situation which is beginning to be challenged by two very small political parties, PINU and UD, and d) against the officers and soldiers who used excessive force to repress protesters who supported the constitutional president.

Agreeing to create an new constitution

Given that the spark that ignited the coup d'etat is related to an attempt to consult the citizenry about the possibility of creating a new constitution, part of an underlying need for the citizenry to participate in the decision-making process about larger national issues, it becomes necessary to design a legal mechanism through which, in the future, a president or [other] citizen is not persecuted for suggesting the need to change it. This is important because of the legal vaccuum left by the constitution of 1982, which did not anticipate legal mechanisms for the creation of a national constituent assembly whose exclusive mission would be to create a new constitution without the process being predeeded by a coup d'etat.

E. Pending Work

1. In the Short Term

a. Accept the resignation of the Junta of Military Commander since it is easy to see that, given what has happened, any proper hierarchical relationship between the constitutional president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the military leadership.

b. Demilitarize the country and its institutions. Members of the military should literally return to their barracks, in order to reaffirm a sense of calm that the country urgently needs.

c. Evaluate the role of the police during the coup d'etat: if it was to guarantee public security or to guarantee the protection of a de facto government.

d. Establish a pact for non-partisan depoliticization in the justice system: this is a key element for guaranteeing judicial security and regaining the confidence of Hondurans and foreigners.

e. Approve democratic mechanisms of citizen participation: the vote and the national-level referendum should be a door that ensures participation and not something that puts the brakes on their right to hold an opinion.

f. Establish mechanisms to guarantee the independence of separate branches of government, in order to permit each branch to focus on its responsibilities without the interference of the other branches in carrying out any aspect of its duties.

g. A social-political pact to carry out general elections without confrontation, with proposals and a vision for the country. The political-economic system needs to regain its legitimacy vis-a-vis the citizenry and should anticipate and take seriously the danger of a political disenchantment expressing itself in high levels of abstention in the November elections.

h. Institutionalize permanent mechanisms of citizen participation in the evaluation of the course that the country takes with each government. In order to prevent political and social conflicts from reaching their limits and to give local and national leaders the opportunity to amend mistakes and attend to the needs of a true social agenda.

2. Medium Term

a. Define (record, specifying exactly) the role of the Armed Forces within a Democracy, so that civilians and military actors understand the true meaning of democracy and assume their role in key aspects of the process of democratic development.

b. Recuperate the secularity of the Honduran State. The place of the diverse denominations is not in the public sphere and they should not be used as a mechanism of political support of any type. They can play a fundamental role in democratic development in the private sphere, creating essential values of democracy like pluralism, tolerance and respect for diversity, which our society so desperately needs.

c. Have a citizen dialogue about the role of the media in democracy. In order to recuperate the image of the media as being committed to the general interests of the society, with professionalism, objectivity and respect for citizens and authorities.

d. Intensify our training in democratic political culture, in order to better know the Constitution of the Republic, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Universities can play a fundamental role in this type of work.

e. Develop programs for the prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts, so we can have professional teams in the parties, social organizations and institutions of the State and to be able to prevent political and social conflicts, and to find pacific solutions when these do erupt.

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