The Obama administration seems to have gotten just about everything wrong about the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Wrong on the law. Wrong on the politics. Wrong on the foreign policy.
On the law, Miguel Estrada, the brilliant attorney whose nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was blocked by those who abhor a truly wise Latino conservative, actually has read the Honduran constitution. He finds that it specifies that it cannot be amended to change the limit on a single four-year term for the president. And it further provides that trying to amend the constitution “constitutes treason.” As Estrada reminds us, “The rules are so tight because these are terribly serious issues for Honduras, which lived under decades of military rule.”
But Zelaya, who fancies himself the next Hugo Chavez, ordered himself up a referendum earlier this year with the clear purpose to amend the constitution to do what is prohibited and indeed treasonous. After all, such a gambit is precisely the mechanism his role model Chavez used in order to extend his rule in Venezuela.
The Honduran Congress voted that Zelaya’s referendum was illegal. And what followed was a model of strict constitutional interpretation and fidelity to the rule of law:
The attorney general filed suit and secured a court order halting the referendum. Zelaya then announced that the voting would go forward just the same, but it would be called an “opinion survey.” The courts again ruled this illegal. Undeterred, Zelaya directed the head of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, to proceed with the “survey” — and “fired” him when he declined. The Supreme Court ruled the firing illegal and ordered Vasquez reinstated.
Zelaya had the ballots printed in Venezuela, but these were impounded by customs when they were brought back to Honduras. On June 25 — three days before he was ousted — Zelaya personally gathered a group of “supporters” and led it to seize the ballots, restating his intent to conduct the “survey” on June 28. That was the breaking point for the attorney general, who immediately sought a warrant from the Supreme Court for Zelaya’s arrest on charges of treason, abuse of authority and other crimes. In response, the court ordered Zelaya’s arrest by the country’s army, which under Article 272 must enforce compliance with the Constitution, particularly with respect to presidential succession. The military executed the court’s order on the morning of the proposed survey.
Estrada concludes that while Zelaya’s arrest was “legal, and rather well justified to boot,” his exile was not. (Solution: let him back in to the country and send him to jail.)