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Last Sunday, Honduras removed its would-be dictator, Mel Zelaya, who flouted court rulings by using intimidation to try to get Hondurans to change their constitution to allow him to extend his tenure in office. The country’s Supreme Court issued a warrant for Zelaya’s arrest, which the military enforced by seizing Zelaya and kicking him out of the country. The country’s legislature then voted almost unanimously to replace him with a legislative speaker, in accord with the country’s constitution.
Now, Obama, who knows nothing about Honduran law, is ignorantly claiming that Zelaya’s removal was “illegal,” and demanding that Zelaya be reinstated as president. His demand is joined in by the Organization of American States, many of whose leaders, like Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, have either violated their own countries’ constitutions, or likewise seek to eliminate term limits contained in their own countries’ constitutions. (”A senior Obama administration official said the United States would probably move to suspend economic development and military assistance” to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere).
Obama is quite wrong to claim that the removal of Zelaya was “illegal.” The Honduran president forfeited his right to rule under Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, which bans presidents from holding office if they even propose to alter the constitutional term limits for presidents. And the Honduran military, which acted on orders of the Honduran supreme court, expressly had the right to remove the president for seeking to alter the constitutional term limit, under Article 272 of the Honduran Constitution, as even left-leaning commentators have now admitted. The Honduran military’s role in enforcing the court order does not make it a “coup” anymore than federal troops’ role in enforcing the court-ordered integration of the Little Rock public schools in 1957 constituted a military occupation or takeover.
(Zelaya was a corrupt ruler who so mismanaged his country’s finances so badly that it recently failed to pay many of its bills. His violations of his country’s constitution were criticized by human rights groups and the Catholic Church as well as the legislature and judiciary).
What happened in Honduras was not illegal, much less a coup, agrees the Honduran lawyer and former Minister of Culture Octavio Sanchez in his July 2 column in the Christian Science Monitor. He notes that under Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, the President automatically lost his right to remain in office by seeking to extend his term in office: “According to Article 239: ‘No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [emphasis added], as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.’ Notice that the article speaks about intent and that it also says ‘immediately’ – as in ‘instant,’ as in ‘no trial required,’ as in ‘no impeachment needed.’ Continuismo – the tendency of heads of state to extend their rule indefinitely – has been the lifeblood of Latin America’s authoritarian tradition. The Constitution’s provision of instant sanction might sound draconian, but every Latin American democrat knows how much of a threat to our fragile democracies continuismo presents. In Latin America, chiefs of state have often been above the law. The instant sanction of the supreme law has successfully prevented the possibility of a new Honduran continuismo. The Supreme Court and the attorney general ordered Zelaya’s arrest for disobeying several court orders compelling him to obey the Constitution. He was detained and taken to Costa Rica. Why? Congress needed time to convene and remove him from office. With him inside the country that would have been impossible. This decision was taken by the 123 (of the 128) members of Congress present that day. Don’t believe the coup myth. The Honduran military acted entirely within the bounds of the Constitution. The military gained nothing but the respect of the nation by its actions.”
If Richard Nixon had been impeached and convicted for Watergate, and then refused to leave office, until being forced out by the military, would that have been a “military coup”? Of course not. But Obama and many in the press are taking essentially that position in demanding the reinstatement of Honduras’s would-be dictator.
The fact that the military carried out the Honduran Supreme Court’s orders in removing a would-be dictator, after he flouted the court’s rulings, does not make it a “military coup.” When court orders are defied by powerful government officials, troops are sometimes called out to enforce them, as happened in the U.S. in 1957 when federal troops forced Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to stop blocking the court-ordered integration of Little Rock’s public schools.
Indeed, Article 272 of the Honduran Constitution gives the military the power to remove a president even without a court order, if he seeks to violate the term limits prescribed in the Honduran Constitution. Even a legal commentator, Litho, at the leading liberal blog Daily Kos, which is run by a leftist Latin American immigrant, admits that the military’s action was “legal” in a “technical sense” under the Honduran Constitution.