Monday, July 06, 2009

Honduras: hypocrisy as an art form

Did you know that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya threatened democracy by trying to get rid of presidential term limits? Already this is gaining the status of a meme.

It's not only the usual crazies, who will support any coup so long as it's against the Left, and are happy to have the people ruled by unelected dictators and the army to preserve democracy. Now it's the mainstream press as well. The Globe & Mail weighs in this morning about the advisability of term limits--it's for them in Honduras, and against them here.

First, what did the deposed president actually do? Canadian Cynic did a little digging, and this is what he found:

The text message that beeped on my cell phone this morning read “Alert, Zelaya has been kidnapped, coup d’etat underway in Honduras, spread the word.” It’s a rude awakening for a Sunday morning, especially for the millions of Hondurans that were preparing to exercise their sacred right to vote today for the first time on a consultative referendum concerning the future convening of a constitutional assembly to reform the constitution. Supposedly at the center of the controversy is today’s scheduled referendum, which is not a binding vote but merely an opinion poll to determine whether or not a majority of Hondurans desire to eventually enter into a process to modify their constitution.

Such an initiative has never taken place in the Central American nation, which has a very limited constitution that allows minimal participation by the people of Honduras in their political processes. The current constitution, written in 1982 during the height of the Reagan Administration’ s dirty war in Central America, was designed to ensure those in power, both economic and political, would retain it with little interference from the people. Zelaya, elected in November 2005 on the platform of Honduras’ Liberal Party, had proposed the opinion poll be conducted to determine if a majority of citizens agreed that constitutional reform was necessary. He was backed by a majority of labor unions and social movements in the country. If the poll had occurred, depending on the results, a referendum would have been conducted during the upcoming elections in November to vote on convening a constitutional assembly. Nevertheless, today’s scheduled poll was not binding by law. In fact, several days before the poll was to occur, Honduras’ Supreme Court ruled it illegal, upon request by the Congress, both of which are led by anti-Zelaya majorities and members of the ultra-conservative party, National Party of Honduras (PNH).

Well, let's also add that, according to various opinion polls, President Zelaya had a public approval rating of about 30%, or so we are told. The reference is probably to this CID-Gallup poll that shows him at 34%, although, on closer inspection, all is not what it seems. Nevertheless, just for the sake of argument, let's assume that this result is accurate: recall that Zelaya won his 2005 election with just under half of the popular vote.

What, then, do we have? A president who doesn't simply declare that he's staying on, but wants to go to the people to see what they think about constitutional change. The referendum, after the Honduran Supreme Court made some noise, would have been legally non-binding. It was not about term limits specifically, but about the advisability of convening a constitutional assembly to mull over constitutional reform in general.

All very rule-of-law-ish, or so it seems to me. And if term limits were to be abolished as a result of those deliberations, Zelaya, at 34% in the polls, wouldn't exactly be going into the next election with a huge head of steam.

In the event, in time-dishonoured Latin American fashion, soldiers entered his residence firing rifles, and he was ejected from the country. But there were important differences: he wasn't shot dead on the spot, like Chile's President Salvador Allende, and the US actually opposed the coup, joining in the near-universal chorus of denunciation.

Er-r, hold on a moment--what do we have here? The Organization of American States has suspended Honduras. But:

Canada and the United States worked closely together to moderate OAS actions in regard to the coup. According to the [New York] Times, the two countries dissuaded the hemispheric body from adopting sanctions and persuaded it to settle for a milder resolution encouraging member countries to "review their relations" while diplomatic efforts continued.

Oh-oh. Is that wheels within wheels I see before me? We'll all cluck with disapproval for a while, but heaven forbid we actually take any action to force Honduras back onto the democratic path. I almost missed that, way down at para. 16 on page A9 in the Globe, although it was, admittedly, front and centre in the New York Times. In Bush's day, leftish Presidents were bundled onto planes and exiled. Under Obama, we'll just let diplomacy do the trick.

Back to the sinuous arguments in today's Globe editorial. Zelaya, shrieks the editorialist, used "machinations" (beware of those, as any kid with a Transformer knows) to attempt to insert a "generalissimo clause" in the Honduran constitution. Since the point at issue was abolishing term limits, which means removing a clause, this allegation makes no sense. But then, propaganda doesn't really have to.

Asking the people what they think, possibly convening a constitutional assembly to look at the constitution as a whole, and all this with a 34% approval rating, is
a "return to authoritarianism," a "blow against the rule of law," "Chavez-style lifetime rule." Zelaya wanted to "extend [his] rule indefinitely," but of course we aren't reminded that it is the lukewarm Honduran electorate who would or would not be doing the extending. Bursting into his house with guns blazing and kicking him out of the country was simply a response to all these threats and menaces. Maybe a little extreme, mind you:

Mr. Zelaya should be restored to office, but if that happens he must also make explicit that he will uphold the constitutional provisions on term limits. The principle he was toying with changing is fundamental to democracy in executive-style presidencies.

Term limits are admittedly quite common around the world, but Honduras' single four-year term stands alone. Canada, however, has no such thing; nor Britain, nor Japan, nor India.

Of course we don't have an "executive-style presidency": it's far too inefficient. Obama, poor man, is not only restricted to two terms: he can't even put a cabinet together without congressional approval. Or pick a Supreme Court justice. Here Stephen Harper picks his cabinet and appoints whomever he likes to the bench and the Senate and fires supposedly independent agency heads at will. He's not the head of state, although he seems to think he is, but the Governor General, by tradition, takes his advice.

The Prime Minister of Canada, in other words, is far more powerful than most of those executive-style presidents, and he doesn't have pesky term limits standing in his way, but the Globe & Mail has nothing to say about any of that. It dares, however, to set out the terms and conditions for the return of Honduras to democracy: the president must not try to bring about constitutional change, says the editorialist, even by democratic means.

Not that he's likely to get the chance, of course. Which is really the whole point of the politicking and counter-politicking currently going on--not to mention the drafting of countless hand-wringing excuses for a classic South American coup.

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