The controversy began when President Zelaya, whose term was to end in January, proposed a referendum to establish a National Constituent Assembly to amend the Honduran constitution. Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was suspected of planning to use the proposed gathering to overturn presidential term limits, though the referendum said nothing about the issue (and in any case it would have been virtually impossible for him to have run again this November).
The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that the poll was illegal. After Zelaya ignored the Court’s decision and organized demonstrators to seize the ballots from the military base where they were stored, the Court issued a warrant for his arrest. At the Court’s direction, the military roused him from his bed on June 28 and sent him into exile in Costa Rica. The National Congress replaced him, selecting the body’s head, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president.
Zelaya denounced his ouster as a coup, though the military never took power and acted at the behest of civilian institutions. The Micheletti government insists that all of its actions, other than exiling Zelaya, were legal, and that exile was necessary for his protection and Honduras’ security. Polls show a sharply divided population, with a narrow plurality opposing his ouster while agreeing that his actions legally justified his removal.
The current confrontation reflects deeper political divisions. In 2005 Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, was elected as the center‐left candidate of the Liberal Party. He turned left‐populist, allying himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Raul Castro. Wealthier Hondurans feared that he hoped to move towards autocracy, like in Venezuela, and even his own party — which dominated the Supreme Court and National Congress — turned against him. His poll ratings were hovering around 25 percent.
The controversy matters to Honduras, and few others. Honduras is a small nation in a region of small nations. It is relatively poor, with minimal impact on the international economy. The country possesses few national resources and has only limited military capabilities. Political instability is unlikely to generate many refugees. The dispute has no measurable impact on the United States.
Yet few issues of so little importance have generated so much heat in Washington. The battle lines formed early. President Barack Obama backed Zelaya. So have most left‐leaning activists. In contrast, several conservative Republican legislators defended the interim government. So, too, did the Right and especially neoconservatives. Libertarian‐minded writers divided. Everyone claimed the mantle of democracy while calling Zelaya either a devoted social reformer or a dangerous dictator wannabe.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say. Philip Giraldi of the American Conservative Defense Alliance may have put it best: “there is no clear good and bad in what happened in Honduras.”
Without question, the Honduran constitution bars amendment via referendum of eight constitutional provisions, including term limits. However, does that provision apply to an advisory measure which does not directly address presidential tenure? Still, the Supreme Court made a clear and presumptively valid ruling, which bound the president. The National Congress and military should have ensured that the law was respected. Was his forcible removal by the military necessary? Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution states that anyone attempting to change the term limit “will immediately cease in their functions.” Was it legitimate for the Court to decide that that is what he intended on doing in the future, even if he was not doing so today? If so, presumably he lost his office automatically. That still didn’t necessarily warrant the military’s bedtime arrest and exile, however.
What were Zelaya’s plans? His intentions might have been malign, though Honduras is one of many countries where economic and political elites tend to help each other at the expense of the poor. Moreover, his critics had reason to worry that Zelaya hoped to follow the precedent created by Venezuela’s Chavez, who has steadily dismantled legal restraints on presidential power and tenure, and eliminated protections for civil and political liberties. Nevertheless, suspicions alone provide a dubious basis for removing a president. Especially since Zelaya was constrained by the very institutions which removed him from power as well as his lack of popularity. Assume that his ouster was valid. His arrest and exile remain dubious. The latter certainly is extra‐constitutional if not expressly illegal.
However, his refusal to respect the decision of the Supreme Court set the stage for potentially violent conflict. And while the military packing him off to Costa Rica in his pajamas looks bad, bad procedure alone does not entitle him to return to office if he violated the Honduran constitution. In short, there is no simple answer to the questions posed by the events of June 28. Was Zelaya’s planned referendum legal? Did the constitution require his removal? Should he have been forced into exile?
For what it is worth, I view Zelaya with suspicion — he has been talking about launching an insurrection to contest his ouster — and believe he should have been held accountable for flouting the Supreme Court’s decisions. But his critics appear to have overreacted. My views shouldn’t matter, however. These are decisions for Hondurans, not Americans (and other people) to make. So too is it up to Hondurans on how to resolve the crisis, including whether to forge some sort of political compromise, such as that advanced by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, in order to minimize future conflict.
Washington should back off. Even if the Obama administration wants to impose a solution, its options are limited.
Zelaya argued that the United States needs “only tighten its fist” to put him back in power, but he overstates America’s influence. The administration already has suspended military aid (why was the United States giving anything for Honduras’ military anyway?), voided visas for interim government officials and threatened to cut off economic assistance. None of these measures are likely to override the dictates of local politics in Tegucigalpa. Ending trade — America is the destination of 70 percent of Honduran exports — would damage the Honduran economy, but would penalize Zelaya supporters and opponents alike, while kindling antagonism toward the overbearing Yankee colossus. If the interim government refused to buckle, maintaining sanctions after a new, freely elected president took office in January would be pointless. Most important, even if the United States and other nations (the OAS has suspended Honduras) were able to force Zelaya’s return, doing so more likely would exacerbate than heal Honduras’ political divisions.
But why should officials in Washington attempt to substitute their judgment for that of people in Honduras? Sometimes there are right answers: brutal violations of human rights can never be justified. But the Honduran legal and political situation is not so clear. People of goodwill and intentions can come down on both sides. Honduras’ political future depends on the Hondurans working through these difficult issues. A permanent solution cannot be imposed from outside.
Does the Honduran political crisis matter to Washington? As a humanitarian concern, yes. But as a foreign‐policy issue, no. There is no direct impact on the U.S. and claims of regional effects appear similarly overblown. American officials should join the OAS in offering to help mediate in Tegucigalpa. But the outcome doesn’t much matter to Washington, which has no special wisdom to offer. Instead of continuing to attempt to micromanage the globe, the U.S. government should take an alternative approach: mind its own business. No longer should every controversy in every nation, such as Honduras, require Washington’s attention.