Early on June 28, members of the Honduran military temporarily
arrested President Manuel Zelaya. Within minutes he was on a plane
bound for Costa Rica. In San Jose, Zelaya denounced the military's
intervention as a "coup d'etat" and a "brutal kidnapping." The
military's actions, while swift and arbitrary, came after President
Zelaya defied virtually every Honduran political and legal
institution and propelled his citizens to the verge of polarizing
violence. Zelaya's swift removal from Honduras probably saved many
In less than six hours, Honduras's congress removed Zelaya as
president for repeated violations of Honduras's laws and
constitution, as well as for his failure to observe resolutions of
Honduran courts. In short, the congress fired the sitting President
for multiple acts of institutional insubordination. The congress
then named its speaker, Robert Micheletti, to serve as chief
executive until after national elections in November. The military
has begun a return back to the barracks.
The events of June 28 mark the culmination in a series of
confrontations between Zelaya and virtually all of Honduras's
political and judicial institutions, including the congress, the
supreme court, the two major political parties (including his own),
and the military. At issue was Zelaya's effort to convene a
non-binding public referendum that, he believed, would open the
doors for major constitutional revision. Given that the Honduran
constitution does not grant its president the power to convene such
referenda, there is no question that, while the response of the
Honduran military may have been rash, President Zelaya was fired
for a legitimate reason.
Zelaya's March to the Left
President Zelaya won election by the slenderest of margins in
2005. A series of corruption charges involving state contracts and
manipulation of public services--particularly in telecommunications
(Hondutel)--hounded the Zelaya government, which began its term
with earnest promises of fiscal probity and transparency. In the
2008 Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index,
Honduras shares a place with Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Libya.
With regard to foreign policy, Zelaya in August 2008 signed on
as a member of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), a
political and economic bloc controlled by senior members Venezuela
and Cuba. Zelaya sought and received assistance from Venezuela via
the oil-financing facility Petrocaribe and moved for closer ties
with Castro's communist-revolutionary regime.
A Quandary for the U.S.
Clearly the Obama Administration is highly uncomfortable with
the course of events in Honduras. It is primarily concerned with
avoiding a repeat of the April 2002 coup in Caracas, in which Hugo
Chávez was temporarily toppled and the U.S. appeared to
favor coup-makers. Therefore, late on June 28, the White House and
State Department were demanding Zelaya's return, continuing to
recognize him as the only legal president and adamant that his
departure was an "illegal and illegitimate act that cannot
stand." On the other hand, U.S. officials are
calling for the crisis to be "resolved peacefully through dialogue
free from any outside interference."
The Obama Administration wants to reverse the events of June 28.
It believes restoring political order and protecting the
fundamentals of the Inter-American Democratic Charter via handing
the problem off the Organization of American States (OAS) will work
easily and promote the smooth, orderly return of President Zelaya.
The facts on the ground, however, do not lend themselves to such a
tidy and optimistic scenario. There is a grave danger that by
acting against the new constitutional arrangement order established
by the Honduran congress, supreme court, and military, bloodshed
and political chaos are likely to follow.
Chávez's Intervention Portends
There is little doubt that President Zelaya was emboldened to
challenge the institutions of Honduras by the support of Hugo
Chávez and other ALBA members. On June 25, ALBA members
issued a public statement claiming that a coup was already
underway, and they backed the June referendum, despite lack of
institutional support. In short, they endorsed Zelaya's defiant and
On June 28, Chávez stepped up his interventions by
directing calls to campesino leaders in Honduras to encourage
resistance, putting his military on alert, calling on the Honduran
soldiers to disobey their superiors, and vowing to topple the new
government. "If they swear in Micheletti [or any other], we will
overthrow them!" he proclaimed. Chávez also threatened
to give a lesson to the military "gorillas" who do not respect
The relentless intervention of Chávez will serve only to
harden the Honduran opposition, demonstrate that Zelaya is heavily
compromised and dependent on foreign backing, and support tactics
that can easily lead to potentially dangerous provocations.
Demonstrations and resistance encouraged by Chávez and
others threaten to make a shamble of institutional order in
- Recognize the new Honduran government. Messy as it is,
the Obama Administration should recognize the new interim
government, as constitutional order has been preserved.
- Restore public order. The Obama Administration should
work with the OAS and other international missions to promote
national reconciliation and an end to polarization.
- Resist Chávez and ALBA intervention. The
Chavistas consistently pushed Zelaya toward confrontational
politics; now they threaten intervention. The Obama Administration
must move to neutralize this negative and highly dangerous
The events unfolding in Honduras remain confused. Yet it appears
the primary institutions of the nation--congress, the supreme
court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the military as the
guardian of public order--have spoken. While these institutions may
have acted precipitously, the bottom line is that President Zelaya
was fired for cause. The U.S. can ill afford to open the door to a
counter-intervention by Hugo Chávez, one that would deliver
Honduras into the Chávez brand of "democracy."
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for
Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign
Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage