Late last week, the State Department announced that it was making permanent its temporary freeze of foreign aid to Honduras. It did so in quite striking terms:
Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): These are not temporary measures. We now have pressed the stop button. This aid is lost to Honduras for the time being. There’s going to be greater impact on those individuals who are part of the de facto regime and those individuals who support the de facto regime. It’s time for everyone to reassess where they are.
Of course, this is merely the next logical step in the Administration’s longstanding position on the Honduran government, after the military forcibly removed former President Zelaya from the country. But what I have never heard out of Washington is what Honduras’ officials — whether they be the military, the attorney general, the courts, or the legislature — should have done in the face of Zelaya’s actions in the weeks and months leading up to his ouster. With thanks to Miguel Estrada, here is a summary of those events:
- Earlier this year, with his term as President winding down, Zelaya ordered a referendum on whether a constitutional convention should be convened to draft a new constitution. This convention was clearly intended to bypass the existing Honduran constitution’s limitations on amendments that would extend a president’s four-year term.
- In fact, the constitution states that any president that even proposes the possibility of reelection must “cease forthwith his duties” as president.
- Oh, and by the way — all referendums must be approved by two-thirds of the legislature.
- Instead, the legislature voted to declare Zelaya’s “illegal.”
- The attorney general filed suit and got a court order barring the referendum.
- Zelaya said his vote would still go on, as an “opinion survey.”
- The attorney general got the courts to strike this down, as well.
- Zelaya ignored the courts and ordered his military to proceed with the referendum.
- When his top general refused to comply with Zelaya’s order, Zelaya fired him.
- The Supreme Court of Honduras declared the firing illegal, reinstating the general.
- Zelaya got his ballots printed by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but they were seized by customs officials upon entering the country.
- Zelaya organized a gang of thugs to seize the ballots from the customs warehouse.
- The attorney general obtained an order from the Supreme Court to arrest Zelaya for treason and other crimes.
- That order, which was enforced by the military per Honduras’ constitution regarding matters of succession, was enforced on June 28th, the day he intended to take his “survey.” Zelaya was arrested and sent into exile in Costa Rica.
- The next official in the constitutional line of succession, the speaker of the legislature, was installed as temporary president, pending the outcome of a new election.
So, President Obama — where in there did the Honduran government go wrong? Sure, it sounds ugly when military officers take an elected president out of his bed in his pajamas and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. And as Estrada points out, the decision to exile Zelaya rather than try him in the nation’s courts was legally suspect, even if it was arguably more favorable to Zelaya. But to call this a “coup,” when the nation’s constitution (and its courts) clearly state that Zelaya’s presidency was over when he began his crusade to extend his power, is irresponsible.
And this isn’t a minor issue restricted to former military dictatorships in Central America. Even the United States has had its brushes with lawless executives. Andrew Jackson threatened to ignore the Supreme Court and allow Georgia to continue to oppress the Cherokees. Governors throughout the South thumbed their noses at the federal courts for years in support of segregation. And of course, Richard Nixon did his darndest to “massacre” his own Justice Department as it investigated the Watergate burglars. Each time, the nation faced a constitutional crisis — are we a nation of laws, or a nation of powerful men, throwing their weight around? Each time, the nation’s leaders stepped back from the brink and avoided the essential breach of a democracy, whereby its leaders consider themselves greater than the nation and its charter.
To put it more bluntly, if we replaced the word “Honduras” with the words “United States” and “Zelaya” with the word “Bush” (to suit Democrat sensibilities) in each bullet above, would Obama want Honduras to call it a coup?
So, President Obama, what should Honduras have done with Zelaya? Let his poll go forward, despite the lawful verdict of the courts? Allow his armed thugs to overturn the lawful judgment of the customs officials? Give Zelaya his new constitution, ignoring the well-founded fears of Honduras’ constitutional framers that such a provision would open the door for a strongman?
And are we truly cutting off aid to Honduras because they exiled, rather than tried, Zelaya? Surely not — we give aid to North Korea, for Pete’s sake. So is this a greater statement on the Administration’s views of the lawless executive — one that lines up fairly well with the State Department’s more hospitable tone toward Chavez, Ahmedinejad, and Castro? After all, Zelaya was only following the time-honored advice of our President: “do what works.”
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