Institutional Crisis Unfolds in Honduras

A serious institutional crisis is taking place in Honduras as a result of President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a new constitution that would allow for his reelection. Zelaya, a close ally of Hugo Chávez, is barred from pursuing a second term in the general elections in November.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, he doesn’t have the backing of his own party, much less any other major political group. So he has moved unilaterally to call for a referendum on the need for a new constitution. The vote, which is scheduled for this Sunday, has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general (whose office is not part of the cabinet in Honduras).

Despite the widespread institutional opposition to his plans, Zelaya is pushing for the vote. On Wednesday he ordered the Honduran armed forces to start distributing the ballots and other electoral materials throughout the country. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him, which prompted the resignation of all other leading army officers and the defense minister.

The attorney general is asking Congress to impeach Zelaya for violating the institutional order and abusing his powers. Last night, the Congress discussed removing Zelaya from his office. The president is defiant and has accused the Congress of attempting a coup.

In the meantime, thousands of Zelaya’s supporters are taking to the streets. Yesterday, a mob personally led by Zelaya stormed a Honduran air force base in order to retrieve the electoral materials that the generals refused to distribute. The army is reportedly deploying troops in the capital Tegucigalpa to prevent possible riots.

Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, is not staying out of the row. Last night he warned that Venezuela and its allies won’t sit idle while the Honduran “elites” launch a coup d’etat against Zeleya. He threatened to do “whatever it takes” to defend him. It might be more hot air coming from Venezuela’s strongman, but it certainly raises the spectrum of foreign involvement in what constitutes a domestic Honduran crisis.

In an interesting twist, Zelaya has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and defend Honduras’ democratic institutions. Most countries in the OAS are client-states of Chávez’s oil largesse. This is why the organization has repeatedly failed to condemn the abuses that Chávez and his Bolivarian friends in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have committed against democratic institutions, independent media, the opposition, and so on. More recently, the general assembly of the OAS has lifted the membership suspension imposed on Cuba, despite the country’s blatant violation of the democratic charter of the organization.

So it wouldn’t be surprising for the OAS to come to Zelaya’s rescue with a statement in his favor, despite his efforts to subvert Honduras’ democratic institutions. Mimicking Chávez’s words, the OAS envoy to Honduras has already said that the organization won’t recognize any government that comes out of “a coup.” José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary general, gave a confusing and ambiguous statement regarding the sacking of the army chief, saying that “the Armed Forces should obey the constitutional mandate and the constituted authority.” It sounds more like an endorsement of Zelaya’s position. The OAS general assembly is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

It’s clear that Zelaya is deliberately generating an institutional crisis. He can rely on the support of Chávez and his regional allies in the OAS. And he knows that if the armed forces try to remove him, it would look like a “coup d’etat” that would probably be widely condemned all throughout Latin America.

This is a real test for the OAS and its supposed (and tarnished) commitment to democratic republican principles.