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In Honduras, Controversy Grows over Questions that Presidential Ouster is a Coup

July 2, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In Honduras, the controversy grows over the question: was the presidential ouster a classic coup, or simply an attempt to uphold the Constitution? Experts debate over the issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the Honduran military conducting a classic coup or upholding the constitution? We get two views on that from Roger Noriega, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States in the Bush administration. He’s now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

And Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society, a think-tank focused on Latin America. He’s also editor-in-chief of its magazine, Americas Quarterly.

And, Christopher Sabatini, let’s start with you. Was Manuel Zelaya removed from office in a coup?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI, Americas Society: Yes, this was a classic coup. The military came to his palace at night, literally kicked him out of bed in his pajamas, put him on a plane, sent him to Costa Rica, and removed him from office.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that this man has rightly been championed as being a victim of a coup, but he by no means should be seen as only a victim.

In the weeks preceding his removal from office, he had, indeed, overridden the congress in pressing for this referendum. He had ignored the ruling of the supreme court, which had declared the referendum unconstitutional. And he had also removed a number of military leaders who had refused to cooperate.

So there’s a lot that preceded it, and this was really seen — primarily should be seen as really a train wreck of institutional stalemate and conflict, but, ultimately, this was a coup that removed him on June 28th.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Noriega, do you agree with that, that this was a coup reminiscent of the bad old days in Latin America?

ROGER NORIEGA, Former State Department Official: No, I really don’t. The further you get away from Honduras, the more and more it may look like a coup.

Your excellent report and Chris’ commentary just mentioned that the military removed Zelaya from office. That’s not correct. He was removed — ordered detained because of his violations of the constitution by the supreme court of Honduras.

The military was calling out — carrying out those orders. It never held on to power. It passed that power to the congress, which followed a constitutional process to replace him.

This is a tragedy. And it’s one, frankly, that’s brought about by Zelaya’s own excesses, trying to follow Hugo Chavez’s playbook and steal power, and hold on to power for at least another term, which is absolutely against the Honduran constitution.

It’s a process that could have been avoided, Zelaya’s willfully moving forward, deliberately defying explicit orders of the court, and courting this disaster, because he felt that he could roll over these other institutions. That’s where the real challenge for us today is, how do you get the OAS, the United States diplomacy to respond more effectively when these carillos (ph), these strong men, run roughshod over the democratic institutions in their countries. We responded too little, too late.

RAY SUAREZ: Christopher Sabatini, you heard the ambassador suggest that this was done strictly by the book with the authorization of the Honduran supreme court?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Quite frankly, I mean, if this were done by the book, what they would have done is impeach him. This is not a case where he had so stripped away the powers of the congress and the supreme court that they were not free to act and serve as a legitimate voice for the opposition.

They had opposed it. They could have allowed the referendum to go forward and then done what democracies usually do, including the United States: impeach the president for breaking the law. Instead, they called on the military, which may not have kept power, but did put him on a plane, did arrest him at gunpoint, and got him the heck out of the country. That’s a coup.

Parts of government backed the coup

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Honduran constitution, Ambassador, is a pretty long document, many times longer than the American Constitution, in fact. And as you suggest, it does say that you can't change the term of a president in this way. But does it also specify how a president should be removed from office? And was this it?

ROGER NORIEGA: I don't think this is an ideal situation by any means. I think that Zelaya should not be in exile today. He should probably be in jail, and it would have been better, I think, in my opinion, as a foreigner, if the Hondurans had tried him, had impeached him, had a public discussion of his offenses and vote on his removal from office. In point of fact, he was removed from office by a vote of 124 to 4 in the congress of Honduras.

I don't know which Honduran law school Chris Sabatini went to, but I didn't. But I think that the Honduran supreme court has something to say about this and is in much better position to judge.

RAY SUAREZ: But what about Mr. Sabatini's suggestion that there was a process and the army coming to your house in the middle of the night isn't it?

ROGER NORIEGA: The supreme court said that the army acted in the appropriate discharge of its functions in its duties. I have the capture order here in my pocket. The supreme court said that this was a legitimate process.

Now, does it look like a classic coup? Obviously, it looks enough like one that people making cursory judgments from 4,000 miles away think that it is a classic coup.

In point of fact, this was a legal process. And the Hondurans really need the support of the international community, not the condemnation of the international community. They needed that support -- and I know Chris agrees on this point -- a week-and-a-half ago and months ago when Zelaya was running roughshod over these institutions.

But the OAS did not respond. The U.S. diplomacy obviously didn't respond effectively enough. And that's where we need to get it right.

I would hate to see Hondurans sanctioned for doing what they in their own judgment -- and this is a universally held opinion, really, in Honduras among the political parties, including Mel Zelaya's own party, all 58 -- or all but a handful of 58 members -- voted to remove him from office because of his violations. And so this reflects a consensus.

RAY SUAREZ: Christopher Sabatini, what about that, that the other institutions in Honduran governmental circles approved of the action and the army has the backing of the courts and the congress?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Democratic institutions, even the other separation of powers, can conduct a coup just the same as a president or the military can conduct a coup. This was an institutional coup lead by the supreme court and the congress.

Roger's absolutely right in that this could have been averted. This was brewing for the last couple weeks. And unfortunately, the OAS and even, to a certain extent, the United States could have done something to avert it, much as it did, for example, in the case of Nicaragua a few years back with Bolanos and the Nicaraguan congress. But that did not occur here.

But we should not mistake the fact that a democratic institution, whether it's a president, elected president, or a supreme court or a congress, can overstep the bounds of institutionality, which is exactly what happened, and simply packing up a president, sending him out of the office, without any -- is what the OAS has defined -- and this is international law; it's not Honduran law -- is an alteration in the constitutional process and needs, under OAS regulations and under regional law, needs to be condemned as a coup d'etat.

Next steps for Honduras government

RAY SUAREZ: Christopher Sabatini, we have a brief time left. The head of the OAS is heading down to Honduras. He's given the government in Tegucigalpa three days to make this right or else they're going to kick them out of the OAS. Is there still several more chapters to play in this confrontation?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: There are several more chapters. And, very quickly, I don't think this is an insoluble problem.

First of all, there are elections coming up in November with two candidates already. Zelaya wasn't one of the candidates, and he would have had to step down by January 27th anyway. I think what you're beginning to see slowly is a softening of some of the positions.

Zelaya has said that he will not try for re-election. I think you just maybe move forward the date of the elections a little more quickly to get him out of the office, maybe move forward the date, but you get him back in as a symbol, even to democratic institutions throughout the hemisphere, that overstepping the boundaries and removing a president who may even have run roughshod over institutions himself, is simply not an acceptable way to resolve political and even constitutional differences.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Ambassador, a quick response?

ROGER NORIEGA: I do not think that Zelaya will be allowed to return to power, because this is now a question of Hondurans defending their territorial integrity, their sovereignty, and their dignity against Hugo Chavez's intervention. It's become that polarized.

RAY SUAREZ: But you were an ambassador to the OAS. You understand that institution very well. They're threatening to kick Honduras out.

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, I think that the OAS should answer for its failures in Ecuador, in Bolivia, in Nicaragua, in Venezuela, and in Honduras before it makes judgments about what the Honduran people are doing to save their own democratic institutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Christopher Sabatini, Ambassador Roger Noriega, gentlemen, thank you both.