Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Clarity, Part 1 of 2

Reports circulating based on coverage of the OAS visit to Honduras in the New York Times suggest the kind of medium-range resolution of the constitutional crisis that might be under development. Meanwhile, the number of arguments circulating widely that purport to explain that the forcible kidnapping and deportation of a sitting president was legal is rising, many sourced to people viewed by honest readers in the US as reliable sources.

So it may be a good time to begin to look, not to politicians, but to scholars for better analyses.

Leticia Saloman is a Honduran sociologist described as an expert on the Honduran police, widely cited and well regarded internationally. She is the author of a long, Spanish-language consideration of the issues involved in the current constitutional crisis, dated June 29, that can be found in multiple places on the web. I cannot possibly translate and post it in full here, but want to highlight several points she makes. I find her description of the events of the week before the coup, which I lived through in Honduras, the most lucid and accurate anywhere.

That week was marked by escalating confrontation between the Executive branch and the Congress and Judiciary, the latter two united by opposition to the President's proposed public opinion poll.

It was clear that there was a plan to carry out a coup d'etat on Thursday, June 25-- not coincidentally, the date on what appears to be a forged letter of resignation produced after the events of June 28. In the early hours of Thursday, the President of Congress, subsequently acclaimed by the Congress as the "interim president", sought a decree by Congress that would have removed President Zelaya from office. The congress actually put together a committee that was charged with reviewing the evidence of the President's actions and writing a report, which news reports said was expected to be completed within hours of its formation. (Think about what it would be like if an impeachment process here reached its conclusion between midnight and 8 AM, and you have the sense of what it was like as it was happening.)

Then the committee didn't produce a report, the President was not arrested, and it seemed the worst was averted. I personally expected there to be police actions against anyone participating in the opinion poll on Sunday, and was prepared to see President Zelaya arrested because he had, in fact, defied the order of the Supreme Court.

Saloman notes that what happened was that the Congressional committee did not produce its resolution removing Zelaya from office as quickly as expected on Thursday, which, "united with the wariness of the Ambassador of the United States to support the disqualification", made it impossible for the coup d'etat to be carried out that same day.

In Honduras, the understanding at the moment was indeed that the US had played a key role, communicating to the authors of the coup that they would not support such an extra-judicial proceeding.

Saloman notes that the 1982 Honduran constitution was drafted in such a way as to make itself resistant to revision. This is what led the proponents of a new constitutional assembly to their fateful campaign: the one way they could envisage to update the fundamental constitution, given the articles written in as inalterable, was to convene a new, elected, constitutional convention in which the people of Honduras, not just the Congress, would be able to consider what guarantees of civil liberties needed to be explicitly stated, and how government might need to function in the future. This very indeterminacy of the goals allowed opponents to characterize the campaign as like the autoritarian Honduran past, where coups d'etat initiated drafting of new constitutions during which Presidential power continued dictatorially.

Saloman identifies the groups who crystallized around opposition to the poll as including political parties; political institutions, with the Supreme Court named by the Congress and owing political loyalty directly to the Congress and to the heads of the political parties to which they belong, and the Congress headed by the loser of the Liberal Party primary for presidency, who blamed Zelaya for lack of support; and the various legal branches, all of whom again owed party loyalty to the Congressional officials who named them to their posts. For me, this is the key thing US commentators fail to understand: by design, the 1982 Honduran constitution lodged a great deal of power in the Congress and little in the Presidency. This includes, notably, the Electoral Tribunal which determined that a public opinion poll was covered by laws passed to oversee binding referenda.

Saloman also notes that the business community opposed President Zelaya, largely due to his decision to raise the minimum wage despite their opinions against it.

Finally, she notes, Honduran media, control of which is highly concentrated in a few hands, including the owners of three of the major newspapers, La Tribuna, El Heraldo, and La Prensa, were opposed to the Zelaya government in part because it declined to give government contracts to these media, in part due to party politics both between the Liberal and Nacional parties and within the Liberal party.

Saloman clearly identifies the issues involved that divided these parties from the administration of President Zelaya, and made the former insist on the absolute changelessness of the Constitution. First, as she notes, Zelaya was interested in promoting participatory democracy, rather than the more passive representative democracy that rules in Honduras. Public trust in government institutions in Honduras was and remains very low, and the Zelaya government saw that clearly as a danger to civil society. Yet for the members of Congress, passivity and acceptance of the status quo on the part of the people meant free reign to govern as they wished.

Saloman notes that the President indeed disobeyed judicial findings, because the judicial branch was clearly acting not impartially, but in concert with the Congress and political parties. As she puts it, "what could have been exclusively a legal dispute, that should have been resolved in the halls of Justice, was converted into essentially a political problem that was managed publicly as a legal problem, while privately, by means of negotiations between the Executive branch and the political-economic-media alliance, it was managed as a political problem".

Saloman notes that the argument that President Zelaya's secret agenda was to remain continuously in power was developed by the Congress and advanced by the media, supported by other factions, most important, including retired military and conservative sectors of society. She notes that this was asserted as a kind of disinformation despite repeated clear statements by Zelaya that he was stepping down when his term ended, although she notes that early on, some proponents of the constitutional reform may have confused the issue with their statements.

Saloman notes that the claim that Zelaya wished to promote communism in Honduras, which began with his (economically motivated) participation in Petrocaribe and ALBA, was particularly promoted by the retired military and promoted by the media.

Added to the mix of charges was the claim that the President had not fulfilled his governmental role. The media attention given by both sides to the campaign for the November ballot question pushed out all other issues, and allowed opposing politicians to claim that in pursuing this agenda, the President was ignoring critical issues such as H1N1, flooding, and most recently, the aftermath of the 7.3 earthquake (which produced miraculously low death tolls but further damaged Honduras' already stressed infrastructure).

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