Friday, July 24, 2009

Constitution Not a Suicide Pact

Zelaya prepares to spark a crisis by entering Honduras:

Just across the border in Nicaragua, deposed President Manuel Zelaya led a swarm of reporters and security forces to the edge of the Honduran frontier.

But he stopped just short of crossing into Honduras — where officials vow to arrest him — despite vows to return to his homeland soon and restore himself to power.

It would be good to remember just who has violated the Honduran constitution:

Zelaya’s plan was nothing less than an attempt to overthrow the Honduran constitution. Reflecting Honduras’s turbulent political history, articles 4 and 374 of its constitution declare presidential term limits to be inviolable and define any attempt to modify them or to serve more than one term as president as “treason against the homeland.” When the Honduran armed forces refused to carry out what would have been a blatantly illegal order, Zelaya sacked their commander, an action the supreme court then overruled. Undeterred, Zelaya organized a group of supporters to seize the ballots from where they had been impounded in order to proceed with the referendum. Shortly afterwards, on June 28, soldiers acting on the order of the Honduran congress and supreme court forced Zelaya aboard a plane to Costa Rica. Despite Chávez’s threats to invade Honduras in order to restore his protégé to power, Zelaya’s removal continues to enjoy wide popular support. It is change Hondurans can believe in.

Oddly, Honduras’s constitution contains no mechanism for impeachment of a sitting president. Critics have seized on this point to argue that Honduras’s action therefore amounts to an illegal coup. Yet, while Honduras’s constitution does not explicitly provide the means for removing Zelaya, it provides every legal justification for doing so, as articles 4 and 374 indicate. Interestingly, the absence of a codified impeachment process arguably makes last month’s “coup” more legal than Lincoln’s actions to save Maryland for the Union. While Lincoln defied an explicit constitutional provision, Honduras’s congress and supreme court simply filled in the blanks.

Nevertheless, critics miss the larger point: Zelaya sought to overthrow his country’s budding constitutional democracy and add Honduras to Latin America’s lengthening list of Venezuelan-style dictatorships. He has so far failed only because the military refused to support him. With Zelaya now calling for insurrection against the new government, Hondurans need only look to the extinction of political freedom and mounting chaos in Venezuela to know what is at stake. To characterize Zelaya’s removal as “illegal” is like blaming firefighters for causing water damage to a burning house.

The vast majority of the international community is focused on the lack of formal removal procedures by condemning the admittedly unusual expulsion of Zelaya. But this incorrect focus ignores the initial violation of the constitution that apparently voided Zelaya's presidency. And this focus ignores the greater damage that Zelaya appeared to have planned for the constitution of Honduras, judging by the friends he kept.

Even though there is no formal mechanism for removing a president who voided their office by violating the constitution, the broad support in the legislative and judicial branches for removing Zelaya shows that the Hondurans did what they needed to do to defend their democracy. The military is to be commended for supporting rule of law rather than condemned for staging a coup.

For Hondurans, their constitution is not a suicide pact designed to thwart true democrats who would defend rule of law and shield proto-dictators from any consequences for their undermining of the rule of law.

Clearly, Honduras should have arrested and tried Zelaya for his crimes when he was ousted.

If Zelaya enters Honduras and gives the government a chance to recover from that mistake, the government should arrest and try Zelaya.

And our government should support the interim government of Honduras rather than work against it based on our government's so-far idiotic interpretation of events.

UPDATE: The Hondurans will arrest Zelaya if he returns to Honduras:

If ousted President Manuel Zelaya succeeds in returning to Honduras, the government that deposed him vows it will be as a prisoner.

Zelaya still faces the same arrest order that prompted soldiers to detain him in a June 28 coup. That order, sought by the independent attorney general and endorsed by the Supreme Court, charged Zelaya with four constitutional crimes, including treason, that carry combined penalties of up to 43 years in prison.
The article also nicely condenses the problem of having a constitution that prohibited what Zelaya was trying to do but failed to have provisions for dealing with that presidential violation of the constitution.

Again, the Hondurans did a decent job of coping with this hole in their basic law by getting consensus among the legislative--including Zelaya's own party--and the judiciary branches that Zelaya had to go. Exiling Zelaya was a mistake--one done with good motives to avoid bloodshed, it seems--that the interim government will correct if Zelaya returns to Honduras.

Again, a decent article that addresses the facts of the situation yet inexplicably fails to draw the conclusion that this was no coup. Well, it seems clear it was an attempted coup by Zelaya, but it would be progress just to have the press reconsider what Micheletti and the rest of the governing bodies in Honduras did to save their democracy from Zelaya.