Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Balancing Democratic Ideals with Constitutional Principle in Honduras

It’s a pleasure to see America once again respected on the world stage. President Obama has done a remarkable job on his recent international tour. It’s a good thing he’s back because we could use his diplomatic skills right here in our own backyard. Earlier this month the Honduran military stormed the presidential palace and escorted President Manuel Zelaya out of the country. The Honduran Congress appointed Roberto Micheletti to replace him. Predictably, their actions drew overwhelming international condemnation. The Organization of American States has even ousted Honduras from their group.
We should, however, examine the situation a little more closely before piling on. The Honduran Constitution limits the President to one single term. It’s smart, perhaps even essential, for a country to put some type of term limit on the chief executive. How many times have we seen a struggling democracy derailed as the leader takes extraordinary steps to stay in power? Many successful nations, including those as diverse as the United States, Brazil, and South Africa place a constitutional term limit on the president. In the not to distant future, all countries should have to demonstrate to the international community that they have an irrevocable term limit on their chief executive.
Zelaya, who had less than a year left in office, wanted to amend the Constitution so he could remain in power. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled his actions illegal. All amendments must be approved by two separate sessions of the legislature. But Zelaya planned to go ahead with an official referendum anyway. It was then that the Honduran Congress directed the military to intervene. Regular elections are still scheduled for next year. Micheletti, the man appointed by the legislature, was already the ranking member of the Congress, comes from the same political party as Zelaya, and has said that he has no plans to run again. This hardly counts as a dangerously unsettling military coup. Sounds more like a country responsibly using the political process to remove an out of control leader. The world would be a much saner, safer place if it happened more often.
Imagine if George Bush had decided to hold a national referendum with less than a year left in office in order to extend the two-term limit that we place on our own presidency. There would, of course, be a national uproar. Congress would condemn the action. Someone would file a legal challenge to the referendum, which the Supreme Court would naturally affirm, (yes, even this court) since it does not adhere to the amendment process. Imagine then, that Bush ignored the court and congress and simply pushed ahead by arbitrarily announcing that he was going to go ahead with an official referendum anyway because he wanted to discern the “will of the people”. Undoubtedly, he would then be quickly impeached and removed from office. This is essentially what happened in Honduras.
Admittedly, Honduras could have been smarter, wiser, and fairer in how they handled the situation. The legislature should have formally and openly removed Zelaya from office before taking military action against him. It’s important in these situations to follow due process to avoid the appearance of impropriety. They also could have done a much better job of assuring the international community, particularly their Central American neighbors in the OAS of the validity of their intentions. The region has a painful history of violent military coups. One cannot blame the OAS for being concerned about the potential contagions of this one.
Reaction within the US has predictably broken along the stereotypical liberal/ conservative axis. Many left-leaning commentators have shamefully shied away from the situation to avoid appearing to be on the politically incorrect side of a cold war that no longer has any meaning. Meanwhile, conservative critics merely point to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s involvement-as if that were proof enough of the illicitness of Zelaya’s actions. President Obama has publicly said that Zelaya should be put back in office. But this may have been stated to prevent critics of Washington like Chavez from alleging US involvement. As with the election debacle in Iran, we have to be careful how we show support.
Still, that does not mean that the US should not attempt to play a slightly more active role as long as our position is based on real democratic principles rather than simple national self-interest or stale cold war thinking. We’ve already suspended military aid. That’s smart symbolically and realistically. Seen or unseen, we should not be adding fuel to a potential fire. Some have suggested that we also stop humanitarian aid. But this would be wrong to punish the poorest country in the hemisphere for taking positive steps to avoid sinking into the type of stifling dictatorship that always leads to decades of the most depressing physical, intellectual, and spirit-crushing poverty.
It’s important to set a framework for a reasonable resolution before positions harden. Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oscar Arias has agreed to act as a mediator. Let’s hope that he can strike the right balance between principle and political expediency. Any elected legislature, even one like Honduras that regrettably does not have a formal impeachment process in place, should certainly have the right to remove a leader who has shown contempt for its constitutional process. But that government also has the responsibility to demonstrate to the international community its strong commitment to democratic ideals. Sadly, Honduras continues to explain its actions by simply invoking its prerogative of national sovereignty rather than the constitutional principle that is clearly on their side. They need to do a better job of articulating their case to the world. The government needs to reaffirm that regular elections will be held within a year. Letting Zelaya, who clearly wants to remain in office indefinitely, to resume the presidency in even a limited capacity is an invitation for a worse crisis later next year. But perhaps he should be allowed to return without the threat of arrest as long as he will drop any presidential aspirations. A little amnesty will go a long way to achieving a political solution. With neither Zelaya nor Micheletti on the ballot, Hondurans can truly move forward with a viable democracy, secure in the knowledge that they have avoided a typical trap that has tragically snared so many other nations throughout the previous century.