By Joel Hirst
On the 28th of June, 2009, then-President of Honduras Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was awakened from his slumber and unceremoniously sent into exile in San Jose, Costa Rica. His crime: attempting to change the country’s constitution to allow for a Presidential re-election. Come to find out – for those with the discipline to read the actual Honduran constitution of 1982 – this is indeed an offense, in fact a wrongdoing that is tantamount to treason.
This simple, clear fact has – for the last two years – been resolutely overlooked. In the immediate aftermath of the Honduran situation, the State Department, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) all joined forces to condemn what they considered a “coup d’état” in Honduras. Even the much respected Oscar Arias – then President of Costa Rica – joined in the international symphony. Seldom have Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and an American President taken their cues from the same song-sheet.
President Arias, opposed to all things military, denounced the role of the Honduran military in their attempt to restore constitutional order. United States President Barack Obama – probably remembering the terrible trouble of the Bush Administration during the Venezuelan coup of 2002 – rapidly embraced the increasingly accepted (if legally dubious) description of this action as a “coup d’état”. Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba found themselves, for once, on the side of American foreign policy, their attempts to bolster their anti-American alliance and subvert democracy in this hemisphere given important support. Probably bewildered by the response of the U.S. President, they nevertheless reveled in the international support afforded to their minion, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya.
The facts in this complicated problem are few and far between. For example, it is a fact that the Honduran constitution forbids any discussion of the founding articles of the constitution by a sitting incumbent, especially the extension of term limits. It is a fact that the Honduran Military, in their disposing of the errant President “Mel” Zelaya, were acting on the orders of the Supreme Court. It is a fact that, upon removing a president in a process tantamount to impeachment, the constitutional order was respected in the installation of Roberto Micheletti as President. And it is a fact that only six months after the legal process which removed President Zelaya from power the Honduran people voted for a new President in freedom and peace.
Despite these facts, in their zeal to follow orders, the truth commission ignored the facts and the San Jose Accords – the most important agreement which returned democracy to Honduras – and instead pursued political expediency. This does not change the reality. The San Jose Accords, in article two, demanded a general amnesty for everybody involved in what I like to call the kerfuffle – something that has been violated in the ongoing calls for legal action against those involved in defending the Honduran democracy. The San Jose Accords – in article three – demand a cessation of calls for a constituent assembly, calls which have been repeated by Manuel Zelaya and enthusiastically adopted by President Lobo in the new discussions which began on July 9, 2011.
None of these things seemed to matter to the truth commission. Taking their cues from the Organization of American States or a State Department unwilling to admit their errors, they pushed upon the members of the truth commission a call for the Honduran situation of 2009 to be labeled a “coup d’état”. Interim President Roberto Micheletti – exercising his legal, constitutional functions as President of the National Congress in assuming the role as chief executive – has been charged in a frivolous wrongful death suit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a left wing organization clearly upset by the attempts of the Honduran people to protect their 1982 constitution. Few (if any) of the members of the Honduran interim government have been returned their US visas. None of this is in line with the spirit of the truth commission. This commission of the Organization of American States (OAS), and funded in part by American taxpayers, was meant to return Honduras as a participating member of the international community. Instead, it appears the commission will be used to open a new front of persecution of those who defended their constitutional democracy.
The role of the United States in this ongoing disaster is shameful. Instead of playing the “grown up”, facilitating a peaceful transition in Honduras, the United States has instead made common cause with the unfriendly nations of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). This organization – a brainchild of anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – seeks to advance the cause of dictatorship in the region.
Despite this calamity, the situation may still be recoverable. The United States Department of State could insist that the results of the truth commission – especially the denomination of the Honduran kerfuffle as a “coup d’état” – is not the official position of the United States Government. It could admit that, while complicated, the situation that resulted in a free and fair election according to the Honduran 1982 constitution and a democratic change in power should be respected. And it could return the visas of those Hondurans who in good faith sought to assure that their country did not descend into dictatorship. The fight for freedom is something that the United States well understands. When the United States stops making common cause with those fighting for their own liberty – that is the time to wonder. Hopefully, this is not one of those times. Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington where he is researching Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). He was USAID Acting Country Representative in Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.joelhirst.com, www.twitter.com/joelhirst or his public facebook page.