Published originally on Forbes.com
What happened in Honduras on June 28 was not a military coup. It was the constitutional removal of a president who abused his powers and tried to subvert the country’s democratic institutions in order to stay in office.
The extent to which this episode has been misreported is truly remarkable. Here are a few of the incontrovertible facts.
First of all, the decision to remove President Manuel Zelaya from office was not undertaken by the military. It was the country’s Supreme Court that unanimously ordered the army on June 26 to arrest the president on the charges of “treason, abuse of power and usurpation of duties.”
The Honduran constitution does not establish an impeachment process by Congress. However, in 2003 the constitution was amended, giving the Supreme Court, and not Congress, the duty to handle the processes initiated against “the highest ranking officials of the State.” This amendment also eliminated the benefit of immunity that high-ranking officials had enjoyed until then. Thus, the president is subject to prosecution–just like any other citizen.
It is also important to note that after Zelaya’s ouster, the army didn’t seize or retain power. The Honduran Congress, as specified by the constitution, promptly swore in the speaker of Congress as the new president. Consequently, power stayed in civilian hands. The army merely enforced a court ruling, as provided for in the constitution.
The Honduran constitution is atypical in Latin American because of its repeated emphasis on presidential term limits. Due to the country’s authoritarian past, when both civilian and military dictatorships were the rule, the Honduran constitution bans any sort of presidential re-election.
The document is quite clear about this: Article 4 states that attempts to violate the alternation in the office of the presidency constitute “treason.” Article 42.5 even says that any person who incites, promotes or supports presidential re-election will lose his or her citizenship.
And Article 239 says that any person who has held the office of the presidency cannot be president or vice president again. Furthermore, it states that the officeholder “that violates this provision or proposes its reform, as well as those who support such a 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.”
I added the italics for emphasis. Note the use of the word “immediately.”
Also, the Honduran constitution stipulates that the only mechanism through which it can be amended is by two separate votes in Congress by absolute majority (two-thirds). However, Article 375 states that under no circumstance can the constitution be amended to allow for presidential re-election.
Zelaya was promoting a referendum on the need for a new constitution that would open the door to his re-election. The vote, which was scheduled the day of his ouster, had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general.
Since late May, the office of the attorney general had been pressing a case against the president for his efforts to call a referendum. The Supreme Court notified the president several times that his actions were out of order. Zelaya ignored those calls.
Instead, he ordered the Honduran armed forces to provide logistical assistance in the execution of his illegal referendum. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him.
The Electoral Tribunal ordered the seizure of the ballots and other electoral materials that were going to be used for the vote. Zelaya then personally led a mob that stormed the air force base where those electoral materials were being held in order to retrieve them.
Given Zelaya’s repeated and deliberate actions against the constitution and the rule of law, on June 25 the attorney general filed an injunction with the Supreme Court asking for his arrest. The next day, the Court unanimously issued an arrest warrant and ordered the army to enforce it.
However, something went wrong. Instead of arresting him, the army disobeyed the terms of the arrest warrant by expelling Zelaya from the country. That was a clear violation the constitution; Article 102 protects a citizen from being expatriated.
The army claims it did so in order to avoid clashes with Zelaya’s supporters, who might have tried to storm the facilities where he’d be held. That could have resulted in bloodshed and a terrible loss of lives.
But the army acted illegally, and the attorney general’s office has already filed an investigation of the military officers’ decision to expel Zelaya. The army has stated that they will comply with any court ruling in this case.
President Obama has declared that this “coup” was illegal. But if he had read the Honduran constitution–or even been provided with a brief analysis of the document’s details–it seems unlikely he could maintain such a firm conclusion.
Juan Carlos Hidalgo is the project coordinator for Latin America at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.