The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Watering the Tree of Liberty in Honduras

Attempting to Defend Its Constitution, the Honduran Government Has Torn It to Shreds Instead

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
~ Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Roberto Micheletti, the acting President of Honduras, has vowed, “No one can make me resign.” He further declared that he would never permit former President Manual Zelaya to return to power “unless another Latin American country comes and imposes him using guns.”

Such an outcome will probably never happen but might be cosmically appropriate, considering that Micheletti achieved office because of Zelaya forced resignation at gunpoint by the Honduran military. Then there is Micheletti’s own promise to use that same military to arrest Zelaya if he so much as tries to set foot in Honduras again.

To be sure, Zelaya is not a good person. He is a known ally of power-hungry Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His recent actions as President sometimes skirted the Honduran Constitution and sometimes defied it outright.

Unable to amend the law to allow him to run for another term, Zelaya first tried to call for a convention to rewrite the Constitution, which had been in effect since 1982. When the Honduran Supreme Court deemed this illegal as well, Zelaya insisted upon holding a non-binding resolution anyway and ordered the military to begin distributing ballots as part of its election role. When the head of the military refused to do so, Zelaya dismissed him.

What happened next is the source of much controversy. The Honduran Constitution apparently allows for impeachment of the President but is fuzzy if not altogether silent on the exact mechanisms for doing so. The Honduran Legislature, unsure what to do next with an Executive who appeared inclined to disregard laws with which he disagreed, turned back to the Supreme Court.

The Court faced a variety of options. It could have ordered the Honduran military as a whole not to comply with Zelaya’s ballot distribution directive as an illegal order – something with which the military seemed already inclined to agree. The Court might have ordered impeachment proceedings again Zelaya to begin and either lay out their exact mechanisms or order the Legislature to do so.

Instead, the Honduran Supreme Court took the catastrophic step of ordering the military to forcibly arrest Zelaya, remove him from office, and expel him from the country. The Court declared, “The armed forces, in charge of supporting the Constitution, acted to defend the state of law and have been forced to apply legal dispositions against those who have expressed themselves publicly and acted against the dispositions of the basic law.”

The Honduran Legislature, delighted to see their dirty work done for them, immediately followed with their own unanimous if now empty resolution to remove Zelaya for “manifest irregular conduct” and “putting in present danger the state of law.”
In fact, the actions taken by Honduras in the name of “Rule of Law” are diametrically opposed to everything for which that concept stands and represents a far worse trashing of the Constitution than anything perpetrated by Zelaya. It is though the U.S. Supreme Court, in deciding Bush v. Gore, had ordered the Army to deport the loser of the election to Canada and jail those supporting him for being too much of a nuisance for a functioning democracy to handle.

The use of the military to override difficult civilian problems, rather than maintaining civilian authority over it, is so obviously dangerous and undemocratic that Honduras has received almost universal condemnation for it.

Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have issued statements declaring that Zelaya’s removal violates the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) called for the unconditional return and restoration of the Constitutional President. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Association of Caribbean States, and the Union of South American Nations issued similar condemnations.

Governments in the region, including those of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Columbia, and Brazil, joined others from around the world in condemning the military action, calling for Zelaya’s return, and/or refusing to recognize the new Honduran head of state. All refer to Zelaya’s removal as a coup, rather than a legal, peaceful transition of power.

It is true that Zelaya flaunted the Honduran Constitution for selfish reasons of personal gain while the Honduran Supreme Court and Legislature did so for altruistic, civic ones. Unfortunately, a democratic government of laws may not disobey or circumvent its own rules, even when a villain is involved. It breaks the sacred contract with the People giving it authority when it does so – the very contract it sought to defend in this case.

Álvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Independent Institute and an expert on Latin America, considers the Honduran government’s blow for democracy an unmitigated disaster that is likely to bring about the exact opposite of its intent. He argued yesterday in the New York Times that military intervention had turned “an unpopular President who was nearing the end of his term into an international cause célèbre.”

Worse still, laments Llosa, as Zelaya’s closest ally in the region, the situation allows socialist strongman Chavez of Venezuela to cast himself as “the unlikely champion of Jeffersonian democracy in Latin America.”

Well, maybe not so unlikely. As the quote at the top of this post indicates, Jefferson was a fervent proponent of democracy as an underlying spirit among the common people but not such a great believer in the staying power of democratic governments. Indeed, he extolled occasional forays into bloodshed and anarchy more than once in his writing, much to the chagrin/outrage of the other Founders.

Part of Jefferson’s seeming penchant for carnage drew from his desire to defend the worst barbarities and excesses of the French Revolution, in which a country he deeply loved threw off a system of monarchy and nobility he deeply hated. Then, as now, most Americans recognize that hoping to perpetuate Rule of Law by pulling it down from time to time is as treacherous as it is nonsensical.

The government of Honduras thought it was defending democracy. It now faces a world that no longer considers it a democracy but a country in the midst of a new revolution. Its Constitution had a good twenty-seven year run but it is now kaput – torn to shreds. Jefferson might have approved but those who truly trust in the Rule of Law find this revolutionary view of democracy a load of manure.

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