Honduras is in tumult following the forced removal of its president, Manuel Zelaya, on 28 June 2009. The coup
has provoked a wave of protest and near-unanimous condemnation by the
country's neighbours, other regional powers, the United States and the
United Nations. The deposed president is determined to affirm his right
to office – as he did in a speech
to the United Nations general assembly on 30 June – and return to
Honduras to secure it. Those responsible for the coup seem equally committed to their chosen course of action.
What is going on in Honduras, and what lies behind this political and constitutional eruption?
Manuel Zelaya's dream
Manuel Zelaya was elected president of Honduras
in December 2005, and was inaugurated in January 2006. His four-year
term of office – before the "constitutional coup", and his replacement
(until 27 January 2010, the day Zelaya's term ends) by the
ultra-conservative speaker of the national congress, Roberto Micheletti
– was scheduled to be voted for in presidential elections on 29
But Zelaya has wanted to prolong his rule; in a pattern familiar from
recent national experiences elsewhere in the Americas, he has been
seeking constitutional means that would allow him to remain in office.
The most controversial of these – and the source of much of the current
troubles – is the so-called cuarte urna ("fourth
ballot-box"): that is, a proposal to hold a national referendum on the
drafting of a new constitution which would (Zelaya hopes) raise
presidential term-limits and thus enable him to continue to rule
Hondurans. Zelaya had called a public consultation on the referendum for 28 June, which was then declared illegal by the congress and supreme court; hours before the polls opened, he was arrested and ejected from the country.
There are several ways to interpret what Zelaya was trying to do with
the referendum effort. The most plausible may be to see it in the
context of the political project of Zelaya and his team – and the
problems they have faced in relation to both internal Honduran
power-structures and regional diplomacy.
These elements are themselves related. The "patricians" around Zelaya
have had great difficulties with the framework they have constructed in
order to join the Latin American trade bloc known as the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Alba),
led by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez). Moreover, the consolidation
of the government's international relations with the region's leftist regimes – Cuba and Nicaragua as well as Venezuela itself – has caused great unrest among some of the country's power-sectors.
Zelaya and his team have long sough to concentrate power in the
presidency as the key site of their political project, but in the
process they ignored and alienated their Liberal Party political base.
The "patricians" paid dearly for this misjudgment in April 2009, when
the traditional Liberal interests won control of the party and
eliminated anyone with influence in the presidency.
This trend was symbolised by Patricia Rodas, the party president, who
dedicated herself to running state policy from the foreign-affairs
ministry. The reward was close links with Hugo Chávez, but in the
process she found her political base corroded. Rodas was arrested in
the coup before being allowed to leave the country.
The re-election issue
The symbolic importance of the cuarte urna can be seen in
this context. During general elections in Honduras, each voter gets
three ballots: the first for presidential and vice-presidential
candidates, the second for parliamentary representatives, and the third
for the municipal mayor. Hence, three ballot-boxes.
The Honduran constitution – the work of a constituent assembly that
convened in 1980 – specifies that parliamentary representatives and
mayors can run for re-election, but not presidents. In fact, even the
argument in favour of presidential re-election has in the past been
viewed as treason. The articles in the constitution the provide for a
single term have been considered "carved in stone" and not to be
reformed for any reason. Indeed, legal specialists argue that these
articles were formulated precisely because of fear that the military
would infringe on Honduras's then tender democracy by using rigged
elections as a way of holding on to state power.
Three decades later, the importance of the military
in the country's political life has – notwithstanding the coup of 28
June 2009 – been sharply reduced. Many military leaders have been
forced to take refuge in the subterranean corridors of organised crime
or in the profitable private-security business. In part as a result,
the arguments used to defend the articles against re-election have
gradually dissipated; the issue was even raised, albeit discreetly, by
of Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-94) and Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé
(1998-2002). Their circles of followers, who wanted to smash the stone
tablets impeding their favourite's re-election, pushed the issue much
has since 1980 been tweaked in other areas around thirty times, to the
point where politicians of all camps are convinced that the document in
no longer adequate. This is where the formal change proposed by Manuel
Zelaya comes in: that in the November 2009 election-round, the voters
will be presented with four ballot-boxes – the fourth one being used
for a referendum on the question: "Do you agree with convening a
constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution?" Most members of
the political class has been in agreement with the idea – but most too
are unhappy with the man promoting it; in great part because lurking
behind the fourth ballot-box they see… Hugo Chávez's shadow.
Zelaya's government had proposed to launch a "popular consultation" in
an effort persuade the national congress to approve the fourth
ballot-box in the November elections. The coup against the president
took place at the moment
this was due to get underway. But the barons controlling the two
traditionally dominant (and now discredited) forces – the National
Party and the Liberal Party – began their own campaigns in May 2009.
They saw the issue as a possible way of revitalising their parties, and
in addition of robbing Zelaya of his "ownership" of the fourth
ballot-box idea. Now, Zelaya has been robbed of more than this, and
Honduran politics is in flux.
The independent route
The current crisis has altered Honduran political calculations, though
until it is resolved – and depending on the way that happens – the
direction of the constitutional argument will remain in question.
In the midst of the convulsion,
one of the hopeful signs has been the continuation of a debate that
began in 2006 about the possibility of independent candidacies in the
presidential election. This debate, centred in Honduras's traditional
grassroots movements, came to nothing because of opposition from the
organised left, whose leaders would consider electoral participation
only from the narrow perspective of the existing leftwing parties.
That debate, like so many others, was derailed by the pressing needs of the moment. The tiny Partido Unificación Democrática
was torn within by irreconcilable conflict over the proposal. As a
result of the impasse, the leaders of the grassroots social movement
decided in late April 2009 to run an independent candidate in the
November 2009 election: trade-union leader and human-rights activist Carlos Humberto Reyes.
The path won't be easy, coup or no coup. The existing "electoral and
political organisations law", created by Liberal and National lawyers
to protect their historic
bipartite system, has long been used limit electoral competition and
exclude any upstart from entering the country's democratic space (the
law, for example, requires that an independent candidate must supply
45,000 accredited supporting signatures to the supreme electoral
tribunal as part of its registration effort). The effort of the veteran
human-rights defender (and current national human-rights commissioner) Ramón Custodio to run for the presidency in 2001 foundered in the face of the law‘s institutional constraints.
The fourth and the fifteenth
The pre-coup political atmosphere revealed the fluidity surrounding the
project of launching an independent candidate and the fourth ballot-box
proposal. The establishment media owned by the country's elite were
quick to connect them, and to try to see evidence of Hugo Chávez's
influence. Indeed, the leaders of the grassroots movement and Zelaya do
agree on several issues: Honduras's attempt to join
Alba; the Petrocaribe alliance with Venezuela to purchase oil on
preferential terms; fervent support for Chávez himself; and fiery
leftist slogans devoid of substance or critical analysis.
The most rightwing currents in Honduras have also tried to jump on the constitutional bandwagon; for example, none other than Roberto Micheletti,
proposed in the second half of April 2009 that President Zelaya grant
the working class a so-called "fifteenth salary" on May Day in exchange
for full support for the fourth ballot-box.
This sounds progressive and worker-friendly – especially at a time of straitened
living-standards, where (for example) Hondurans' purchasing-power has
fallen by 30% even compared to 2008 – but is more a trap set by the
most conservative business sectors. The business leaders may be worried
by a drastic reduction in people's spending, but they are more
interested in gaining a political advantage.
But the interests of political calculation also dominate the other side
of the spectrum. Zelaya has exploited the grassroots movement's need to
be heard and the desire for prominence of some of its vocal leaders –
who for their part seem to have forgotten that the Zelaya who now
embraces Chávez and mouths revolutionary slogans once made an alliance
with Roberto Micheletti. These leaders also wanted to use Zelaya's
government as a lever to present themselves as the real representatives
of the continent's left in Honduras. In other words, this a temporary
alliance of mutual manipulation.
The way forward
Carlos Humberto Reyes's candidacy may yet prove an instrument towards a real break with the bi-party system. At the same time, even before the coup
it was evident that his campaign's links with the executive branch
could compromise the very independence it is supposed to embody. The
implication is that the grassroots movement should maintain its
critical capacity and establish a clear distance from the executive
branch and the fourth ballot-box idea – whose objective was always to
keep Zelaya in government at whatever cost.
The smoke from the "constitutional coup" will take time to clear. But
even before it occurred, it was evident that Honduras needs a change of
direction and new legislation that responds to the challenges of the complex 21st century.
A constitution changed piecemeal every time it suits the official
political class can't go on being the legal instrument that regulates
the country's life. The real debate isn't the relevance of
constitutional reform, but rather the intentions behind that fourth
ballot-box. If the idea is to clean up the image of the political
class, it would become just another instrument like the reform to elect
the supreme court or the supreme electoral tribunal. Honduras's laws
are reformed mainly to satisfy the power ambitions of the politicians
themselves, some of whom dress in nationalist blue, others in Liberal
red – all the while making a show of wearing the blue-and-white of the
What use, then, would be a fourth ballot-box that produces a
constituent assembly of the same old politicians to draft a new
constitution that responds to and updates the interests of the same old
political class? The country needs a fourth ballot-box to bring
together the interests of all the different social and grassroots
elements to campaign for a country better than the one controlled for
decades by the caste of traditional politicians, a sovereign country
that respects the dignity of its poorest people. Whatever the outcome
of Honduras's current political trauma, this aspiration must remain on