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Call off the coup in Honduras

The revolt against a democratically elected government is wrong; both sides need to pull back and return to the constitution.

June 30, 2009

Latin Americans suffered at least three dozen military coups d'etat from the 1960s through the end of the 20th century. They believed they had put that unsavory history behind them with a wave of democratically elected civilian governments, and for the most part they had, until Honduras returned to that bygone era this week with army tanks in the streets, the president ushered into exile at gunpoint -- in his pajamas -- and the Congress waving a phony resignation letter before naming a new president. This was a coup, and it must be reversed.

Before his ouster, President Manuel Zelaya was no democratic saint himself. He was doing battle with the other branches of government over his legally questionable efforts to eliminate presidential term limits. The Supreme Court and Congress declared a referendum on the subject unconstitutional, and the prosecutor's office and electoral tribunal had the ballots confiscated. When the army refused to organize the vote, Zelaya fired the commander of the armed forces.

The Organization of American States demonstrated extraordinary unity in condemning the coup. That's not surprising, as the OAS includes many countries such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil that have overcome military dictatorships. The U.S., however, was initially more cautious. Instead of calling it a coup, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to "the underlying problems that led to [Sunday's] events." Only on Monday did President Obama finally call those events by their name.

Zelaya is a wealthy rancher who has become an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his fight is, in part, with the Honduran elites. He was replaced by a member of his own party, Roberto Micheletti, who justified Zelaya's removal by saying, "We can't allow this government to take us to communism or socialism." Even though the Honduran Congress and military may believe they are defending the country against a would-be dictator, the ends don't justify the means. They miscalculated and must retreat. In fact, the best solution would be for both sides to climb down. Zelaya should be allowed to return to office for the last six months of his term. And if what he says is true, that he was not seeking a second term for himself, then he won't mind pursuing a referendum after he leaves office -- as a private citizen. For now, both sides need to return to the constitution.

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