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.)
Then there is the politics within Honduras. It seems the Honduran people have figured out what Zelaya is up to and don’t like it one bit. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Honduran media published a CID-Gallup poll that showed 41% of Hondurans said the coup was justified, while 28% were opposed. The survey, conducted between June 30 and July 4, supported anecdotal evidence of anger at Mr. Zelaya. While thousands of Hondurans take to the streets almost daily to protest the ouster, larger crowds often demonstrate in favor of the coup.
Rodriguez said Zelaya’s bid for a nationwide referendum that could have extended presidential term limits violated an article in the Honduran constitution, which states that anyone who seeks to change a prohibition on presidential reelection immediately loses any office they hold. . . In an interview this week with CNN en Espanol, Rodriguez took the direct approach to addressing Chavez: “I want to take this opportunity to say that we totally reject the meddling of the Venezuelan president. We are a small country, but a sovereign one.”
So while Obama might find the ouster of Chavez’s “mini-me” to be “illegal” and “unacceptable,” the Honduran constitution and people don’t agree.
And then there is the foreign policy side of the equation. In yet another effort to apologize for past American sins, Obama was quick to weigh in against the “coup.” Now this was neither a coup (see Estrada) nor an American coup, but let’s not gets hung up on technicalities.
What Obama was clearly doing was trying to escape the image that he was merely one more American president in conflict with anti-American voices in the region. He wasn’t going to let a little bit of Chavez-emulation deter him. He is, we have come to see, in the business of being “Not George W. Bush.” And in this case that meant siding with the anti-American Zelaya and his patron Chavez.
That, of course, has put the Obama administration at odds with the Honduran people and the “rule of law” which Obama always invokes when he is not really following the applicable rule of law. So finding themselves in a bit of a bind, the Obama team punted to the former president of Costa Rica who proceeded to begin negotiations. He then penned an odd column in the Washington Post in which he explained that problems like this occur when “governments divert to their militaries resources that could be used to strengthen their democratic institutions.” (Actually in this case the military was defending democratic institutions, but let’s hope his mediation skills are up to the task of finding an acceptable solution.)
So Obama on this one got the law, the politics, and the foreign policy wrong. And, perhaps realizing as much, he has had to reverse course (or force his secretary of state to do so) and get out of the limelight. That is the most positive development yet. Really, if you are going to “meddle” it is best to know something about the country in which you are meddling and the regional implications which will flow from it.