The Protagonists of a Coup Foretold
The military coup in Honduras didn’t come out of the blue.
The whole tragedy—President Zelaya dragged from bed at dawn,
whisked out of the country on a plane, voted out of his post,
the military controlling the streets—
all had prior scenes with various major actors on stage.
Many interests are behind the scenes,
and all players have a share
of the responsibility.
On Sunday June 28, a contingent of soldiers surrounded the residency of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya Rosales, elected in 2006 to serve until 2010. He was arrested and taken to an air force base, then flown off to Costa Rica, in an act similar to the tactics the military used in the past to get rid of old Armed Forces chiefs.
The main trigger for this event was the President’s call for a vote that same day to gauge public opinion on the desirability of adding a “fourth ballot box” to the general elections this November. In addition to the boxes for the votes for President, legislative representatives and mayors, there would also be one for a referendum ballot on whether or not to elect a Constituent Assembly, whose main role would be to draw up a new Constitution.
The coup process Events had been building toward a coup for days, fueled by a growing confrontation with the legislative and judicial branches of government, which rejected the civic consultation, facing off against the executive branch. One of the most evident and extreme examples of this clash took place around the President’s decision to dismiss the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, for refusing to comply with an executive order. While the Constitution granted him that faculty, based on subordination of the Armed Forces hierarchy to the legitimately constituted power, he didn’t notify the other two branches, who opposed the decision. In an attack on the independence of the state branches, the Supreme Court of Justice retaliated by restituting the general to his post in a lightning operation and the National Congress went so far as to declare the general a “national hero.”
The decision to orchestrate a coup d’état was made on Thursday June 25, when Congress president Roberto Micheletti called on the plenary to disqualify President Zelaya from continuing in his post and proceeded to constitute a Ruling Commission. The fact that this commission didn’t issue its resolution as quickly as expected, added to the US ambassador’s cautious stance regarding support of the disqualification, stopped the coup from taking place that very day.
The triggerThe present Honduran Constitution, in force since 1982, establishes no mechanisms for revising it or creating a new one. The constituent representatives of the time, aware of the traditional political parties’ weaknesses, established a set of what they called “stone-clad” articles and warned that any attempt to reform it would be considered a crime. The political class reacted adversely to President Zelaya’s civic consultation initiative to ask the citizenry whether it wanted the fourth ballot box in the upcoming general elections. They constantly mentioned that in the authoritarian past such a proposal implicitly led to a coup springing from the President’s ambition to remain in power.
Any attempt by the President to hold his consultation ran up against the opposition of first the legislative branch and then the judicial one. That opposition became steadily more intense, with the constant and rapid issuing of illegality rulings against all executive branch initiatives related to the fourth ballot box, whether in the form of a “consultation” or a “survey.”
The political-economic-media allianceFor two years, President Zelaya has been talking about the “powers that be” that were pressuring him to give them economic benefits, including businesspeople from the mass media and other economic activities. All the recent events allowed a confluence of these and other diverse interests, which sided with Micheletti in the confrontation of state branches. First were political and party interests, which brought on board the followers of National Congress president Roberto Micheletti, losing candidate in the Liberal Party’s primary elections, who strongly resented President Zelaya for giving him too little support to ensure his victory.
Others who jumped on the bandwagon included National Party militants who viewed President Zelaya’s initiative as a threat to the victory of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, their party’s candidate; and parliamentary representatives from two of the three small parties—the Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) and Christian Democracy. The one party that didn’t join in was the leftist Democratic Unification, with very limited representation in Congress.
Second, a set of political-institutional interests motivated various institutions to participate, including the Supreme Court, eight of whose members including its president are from the Liberal Party, with the other seven from the National Party.
All these justices were approved by the National Congress after being proposed by a Nominating Board, but all are highly subservient to the party that voted for them, with the Supreme Court president directly dependent on Micheletti.
In the Public Ministry, both the Prosecutor General (Liberal Party) and the Deputy Prosecutor General (National Party) were appointed recently after intense negotiations among the parliamentary benches, in which Micheletti played an active role. The Liberal appointed to head the Attorney General’s Office is very dependent on her party. And Congress reelected the National Human Rights Commissioner only after intense negotiations with the Liberal Party and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The latter institution is highly partisan, as its president belongs to the Liberal Party and has close links with Micheletti.
Economic interests were also at play, uniting business leaders from their respective associations—the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP) and the National Manufacturers’ Association (ANDI)—who were already upset by the President’s unilateral decision to increase the minimum wage in December 2008, despite the business world’s rejection of such an increase.
Last but not least were the media interests, which brought together the country’s main media owners, including Rafael Ferrari of the Liberal Party, who owns TV channels 3, 5 and 7, a radio chain and several minor radio stations. Another powerful Liberal Party media owner is Carlos Flores, a former President of Honduras, owner of La Tribuna, a newspaper influential in the country’s central zone. He’s also the father of the National Congress vice president, who was assured her post by Micheletti’s friendship and dependent relationship with Flores. Also influential is the National Party’s Jorge Cañahuatti, owner of El Heraldo and La Prensa newspapers, respectively very influential in the central zone and on the national level. He has been at loggerheads with the Zelaya government right from the start over party issues and his exclusion from government contracts.
The arguments against Zelaya“He wanted to impose participatory democracy.” The country’s political class, represented in the National Congress through constituted parties, has expressed growing resistance to new democratic forms, such as participatory democracy, arguing that the only way to exercise democracy is through elected representatives and that only National Congress representatives are authorized to comment on public affairs. The idea of consulting the citizenry about
a matter of national importance—such as the drafting of a new Constitution adapted to changes in the national and international context in the 28 years since it was issued—upset the legislative calm. The representatives started to argue that the Constitution would not be changed because the Constituent Assembly members who wrote up the 1982 Constitution decided on stone-clad articles that made it impossible to reform.
“He disobeyed judicial orders.” The President’s insistence on pursuing the fourth ballot box idea despite judicial branch and legislative branch opposition pushed the confrontation to an extreme in which all branches ended up with legal arguments and counter-arguments that revealed the judicial branch’s partisan politics. What could have been an exclusively juridical conflict to be resolved in the courts ended up highly politicized. Publically, it was addressed as a juridical problem, but privately it was managed politically through negotiations between the executive branch and the political-economic-media alliance.
“He wanted to continue in power.” The National Congress began to use the continuist argument, seconded by interested groups and individuals, including the media owners, the private business sector and retired military officers. They all started to plant the idea that Zelaya wanted to stay in power, despite his repeated assurances that he would be in office only until the last day of his mandate and that the new Constituent Assembly would be a task for to the new government that would start in 2010.
This perception of Zelaya’s ambitions may have been influenced by the contradictory initial declarations of officials close to him, which helped confuse the sectors in confrontation over the issue. Nonetheless, the perception soon took on a life of its own and was repeated again and again by all components in the political-economic-media alliance until it acquired the status of disinformation.
“He wanted to install communism in the country.” President Zelaya’s close relations with the countries in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and the Petrocaribe initiative gave him a center-left image that worried businesspeople and politicians; they in turn started to associate all government decisions with actions aimed at installing communism in the country. This was skillfully manipulated by the media and insistently repeated by retired military officers, who were given a leading role by the forces in opposition to the government. They stigmatized both the governments and the citizens of the ALBA countries Zelaya was closest to—particularly Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba—and even claimed that the presence of their ambassadors in Honduras threatened democracy.
“He hasn’t complied with his functions.” The issue of the fourth ballot box displaced all others on the national agenda, hogging the attention of legislators, officials and the media to such an extreme that the media in the alliance dedicated huge amounts of space to questioning it. And of course, the government used the state television channel and a couple of other channels to defend its own positions on the issue. The opposition alliance hammered away at the President’s insistence on maintaining the issue and what they perceived as his lack of attention to swine flu, the floods and the consequences of the recent earthquake.
The role of the military…As the confrontation among the state branches spiraled into an evident crisis of political governability, the opposition alliance started cozying up to the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Junta of Commanders, made up of the heads of the three armed forces and the Inspector General, calling on them not to obey the President’s order to distribute ballot boxes for the nationwide opinion survey. At the same time they were privately negotiating with the military top brass, they were publicly hauling out retired officers trained during the height of the Cold War, who reaffirmed anti-communist positions, incited disobedience and called for the insubordination of active members of the military.
The crisis allowed people submerged in anonymity to become highly visible reference points for the media in the opposition alliance, militarizing the media agenda and polarizing society into two conflicting groups: those in favor and those against. The dismissal of the head of the Joint Chiefs and the resignation of Defense Secretary Edmundo Orellana in solidarity was a logical consequence of the political and juridical pressure exerted on the military for several days.
…and its huge mistakeUp to that point, the Armed Forces appeared to be the victims of civil polarization on the political level. But following General Vásquez’s restitution to his post and Congress’ public recognition of him as a “national hero” for having disobeyed the President, he started joining in marches and street protests and giving interviews to the opposition media, clearly placing himself on the side of the political-economic-media alliance. The Junta of Commanders then decided to get involved in the confrontation alongside General Vásquez and the opposition alliance by implementing the coup d’état in the early hours of June 28.
In so doing, the military commanders tossed aside 28 years of professionalization and increased military subordination to legitimately constituted governments, preferring to prioritize their own private interests and resentments and succumb to the economic and political powers. It was a major mistake that will leave a negative mark on their institution. In these years of democracy-building, the Armed Forces managed step by step to build up strong legitimacy with society, to the extent that they achieved similar acceptance levels to the Catholic Church in the opinion polls. Seeing them in the streets alongside the police, pursuing and beating Honduran citizens who rejected the coup, was a serious reversal for which they will pay a price before society and history.
The National Congress’ contradictionsWhat happened in Congress on Sunday June 28 will go down in history as an example of the extremes to which the combination of intolerance, manipulation of the meaning of democracy, personal interests, ideologizing of political conflict and intra-party rivalries can lead. The most regrettable thing is the reproduction of old military methods, which included sustaining lies as truths, official silence in response to a critical situation, the subjection of media that opposed the coup, disinformation, absence of information about what was happening, phone tapping, detention of officials, repression of protestors, power cuts, an attempt to control electronic communications and self-proclamation as defenders of the nation.
All this led the legislators and their followers to produce a series of contradictions that the media faithfully and unquestioningly reproduced.
President Zelaya’s resignation letterThe justification for the coup was the resignation letter supposedly signed and sealed by the President that Sunday, in which he indicated that he was going for health reasons and to preserve the peace of the nation. But the letter was actually from June 25, the date the coup to remove President Zelaya was planned in conversations between Congress president Micheletti and General Vásquez.
Replace vs. overthrowThe central argument the Congress representatives used was that the vacuum left by the President’s “resignation” obliged them to replace him with the Congress president, who is next in the line of succession according to the Constitution. However, both they and their allies contradicted themselves by repeating that the President was overthrown, relieved of his position, removed or separated from his post for not complying with judicial orders. The legislative decree established that it was condemning the President’s actions and removing him from his post.
Esprit de corps vs. The National Congress has assumed quite homogenous positions with regard to the coup, appearing as a state branch in conflict with another state branch, without party distinctions between Liberals and Nationalists. However, on the individual level each party is jockeying for its own interests, such as the distribution of public posts in the seven months before Zelaya’s presidential term in office officially comes to an end, and the distribution of National Congress posts once the new government takes office. The Nationalists backed the coup trusting that this crisis would increase the differences within the Liberal Party, leading it to lose the elections in November; while the Liberals backed it thinking that controlling the government for seven months would give them access to public funds for their campaign and ensure their win in November.
From losing candidate The fact that he had lost his party’s primary elections to his rival, Elvin Santos, was no obstacle to establishing Micheletti as the junior partner in the coup, because the opposition alliance strengthened him relative to Zelaya, who appeared isolated from his party. The resentment generated by the frustration of Micheletti’s presidential aspirations through legal channels was compensated by the possibility of becoming President through illegal ones, even if through a coup d’état.
to de facto President
The weaknesses The political and institutional crisis that led to the June 28 coup is undeniably rooted in the structure of the political system and its weak responses to the challenges involved in building democracy in our country.
generated by the crisis
Party politicization of the institutions. All of the state institutions are political by nature, but embossing on them an exclusionary, subordinated and disrespectful party stamp oversteps the limits of the acceptable and becomes
a weakness that could threaten the strengthening of democracy. The lack of independence and the limited autonomy to perform in front of the citizenry have become a serious weakness that flowered to such an extent in this crisis that it must motivate profound reflection.
Presidents of the legislative branch standing for presidential candidate. In recent years there has been a growing tendency toward confrontation between the legislative and executive branches when the presidential pre-candidates and candidates start to be defined. One key factor here is the candidacies launched by National Congress presidents, which lead parliament not only to distance itself from the executive branch but even to confront it in order to increase grassroots acceptance or to start exercising power before it is obtained.
A recent reform was aimed at stopping this kind of candidacy from being launched unless the would-be candidates resigned their post, but the politicization of the institutions, particularly the judicial system, has meant that the last two congressional presidents launched candidacies despite the prohibition established in a constitutional reform.
Political incapacity to reach agreements. An increasing political inability to achieve consensus and hammer out agreements has been observed. In the past, such a capacity freed our country from the warring conflicts that emerged in other Central American countries, but the recent tendency reached its maximum expression in the crisis that led to the coup. This situation could have been avoided had the two sides in conflict had the political will to back down, to be more open to negotiations and more ready to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts.
Resorting to arbitral powers: the army and churches. One great weakness in the Honduran political system, which is closely linked to the previous point, is the constant search for arbitral powers to resolve conflicts. Resorting to the Armed Forces is a response that has historically characterized the system, and such a decision has invariably resulted in coups as the result of granting the military political leadership that doesn’t correspond to it.
A new expression of this tendency is the idea of turning to the country’s churches to mediate and arbitrate, a role that doesn’t correspond to them either, given the secular nature of the Honduran state. In this process of polarization followed by the coup d’état, both the Catholic and Protestant churches failed in their role as mediators, tending instead to favor one of the conflicting sides, thus increasing the tension and intensifying the polarization. This negative tendency concedes political leadership to two institutions that shouldn’t have it, because they occupy spaces that shouldn’t be contaminated by politics.
Culture of intolerance, disrespect and confrontation. One relatively new characteristic of the Honduran political system is intolerance of those who are different and think differently; a lack of respect for others, including our country’s highest authorities; and a tendency to turn dialogue into confrontation. This has been observed with a great deal of concern during the current crisis, in both the political and social spheres. It’s noteworthy that the confrontation reached its breaking point provoked and stimulated by the media in the opposition alliance, which impregnated society with elements that have characterized the media in general: insults, coarse language, shouting, invasion of privacy, aggression, unfounded accusations… All this was seen during this process and it further hindered the search for consensus and peaceful solutions to the conflicts.
A blow to the democratic processWere it not for the drama triggered by the coup, President Zelaya’s detention and expulsion, the repression of protestors, the violation of individual guarantees and the controlling of freedom of expression, the way Honduran politicians define democracy, democratic order and institutional strengthening would be laughable. They maintain the old ideologized concept of democracy, which has the military as its main defenders. They define as “democratic order” the punishment imposed on the President for daring to defy the National Congress. And they call the celerity with which they named his replacement and new Cabinet “institutional strengthening.” The situation gets even more hilarious when we listen to their reasoning about why what happened can’t be defined as a coup: because there are still three branches, the constitutional order hasn’t been broken and there are no military heading the state institutions.
Honduran politicians have dealt a strong blow to the democracy-building process that has been taking place in Honduras over the past 28 years, demonstrating intolerance, disrespect for the independence of powers, authoritarianism, ignorance of changes in the international context, unbridled ambition, subordination to the economic groups and profound disrespect for the rule of law.
The Armed Forces became accomplices in breaking the constitutional order and caused profound damage to their institutional image, replacing their professional, apolitical and non-deliberating role with the pejorative image of “gorillas” associated with them during the eighties. They joined in with the game the political-economic-media alliance was playing and became an instrument for its members to achieve their objectives. Those in the alliance ended up with the glory, while the military was saddled with the ignominy.
Progress indicatorsAll people, groups and politicians have the right to support or reject the ideological systems that characterize other countries in our continent. But they do not have the right to impose their own particular criteria as the general criteria of society, to stop a President from finishing his constitutional mandate simply because they don’t share his personal preference for other Presidents or to stop the citizenry from being consulted on any issue, including the drafting of a new Constitution. Protesting about these and other issues is also a universal right, but publicly expressing our preferences and shouting them out at the top of our lungs doesn’t make us superior to the others.
Consulting the citizenry can never be an illegal act, and if the members of the political-economic-media alliance recognize and assume that it will represent a real indicator of progress in our democratic political culture. The Honduran Armed Forces’ recognition of and respect for the coexistence of people, parties and countries that are different or think differently will also be a real indicator that they have overcome their primitive, backward characteristics. Expressing an opinion doesn’t automatically imply being for or against, and when Honduran society realizes this it will be a real indicator of its capacity to debate and propose.
Sociologist and economist Leticia Salomón is a lecturer and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Honduras’ Department of Social Sciences.