The Impending Final Nail in the Coffin of Honduran Democracy

May 10, 2013 | Updated Jul 10, 2013

Whatever Manuel Zelaya did, or attempted to do, during the three and half years (January 2006 to June 2009) he was President of Honduras is not nearly as bad as what has been done, or being attempted to be done, by the National Congress of Honduras under the leadership of Congressman Juan Orlando Hernández (and assumingly with the approval of President Lobo) during the past five months. President Zelaya ignored rulings by the Supreme Court, as well as by his own Attorney General and Public Ministry, that his plan to hold a non-binding opinion poll on whether to set up a fourth ballot box (cuarta urna) for a public referendum on whether to establish a National Constituent Assembly to review and rewrite the Honduran Constitution was illegal.

Mr. Zelaya's refusal to listen to the Supreme Court, along with his increasingly erratic behavior and growing ties with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, created the appearance of a man well on his way to becoming a dictator. Whether well-founded or not, there was popular belief in Honduras at the time that part of Mr. Zelaya's zeal for a referendum on a National Constituent Assembly was that he saw this as a way to change the Constitution to allow for Honduran presidents either to run for re-election or extend their terms of office.

There was strong speculation that Mr. Zelaya did not want to give up power. Both members of Mr. Zelaya's Liberal Party and the opposition Nationalist Party became extremely wary of Mr. Chávez's influence on Mr. Zelaya. They saw how Mr. Chávez had managed to consolidate power in Venezuela and remain President of that country for more than a decade, and they feared Mr. Zelaya would follow his mentor's lead and pull off a similar stunt in Honduras.

The first step was for Mr. Zelaya to ignore the positions taken by the Legislative and Judicial branches, and dare them to take on the Executive branch. On a number of occasions, Mr. Zelaya suggested that he didn't have to listen to anyone because he was the President, and only he represented the will of the people because they elected him. He tended to consider the Legislative and Judicial branches more as extensions of Executive authority, rather than equal partners. Mr. Zelaya's intention was to stall members of Congress and the Supreme Court and wear them out by simply... not listening to them.

Mr. Zelaya knew that there was a plot being hatched to try and oust him. But he believed he could survive an attempted coup, and amazingly he grew more belligerent and irrational -- to the point where it looked as if he were deliberately provoking an overthrow. Mr. Zelaya's critical miscalculation came on June 24, 2009 when he fired the head of the Armed Forces, General Romeo Vásquez (who is now the presidential candidate for the new Patriotic Alliance Party). It was at that moment that Mr. Zelaya lost the support of the Honduran military and left himself wide open for the coup that followed four days later. Epic misstep.

Had Mr. Zelaya avoided provoking the military by not openly disrespecting and canning Gen. Vásquez and losing their support, he would never have been ousted, because, ironically, Mr. Zelaya and Gen. Vásquez were friends, and Mr. Zelaya had been extremely generous to the military during his administration. In an effort to be faithful to a Supreme Court ruling, Gen. Vásquez had refused to obey Mr. Zelaya's order to have Honduran soldiers distribute ballots for the opinion poll scheduled on June 28 and provide security for the polling process. However, it is unlikely Gen. Vásquez would have moved against Mr. Zelaya had he not been so unceremoniously axed.

The firing of Gen. Vásquez only contributed to the view that Mr. Zelaya was quickly becoming dictatorial (and destined to become even more so), and that there was no way to communicate reasonably with him. Given that there was no presidential impeachment process specified by the Constitution, the only way to rein in Mr. Zelaya seemed to be by force.

The manner in which Mr. Zelaya was arrested and expatriated to Costa Rica without due process was clearly illegal and unconstitutional. A government cannot expatriate its citizens, and it cannot deny them due process under the law. Regardless of how mischievous Mr. Zelaya may have been or whether he actually broke the law or not, the man should not have been expatriated, and he should have been given the right to hear the charges against him and allowed the right to defend himself in a court of law. That's the way you do things in an orderly democracy. Of course, the problem is you're talking about Honduras.

The point is that Mr. Zelaya's great sin was that he was acting like an obnoxious, annoying brat who didn't want to play by anyone's rules but his own. If he didn't actually break the law, he was definitely toying with it. We'll never really know because Mr. Zelaya has never been put on trial. What there are are legal opinions. And we'll never know whether he would have tried to remain in power and become a real live dictator. We can only speculate.

A decent case can be made that Mr. Zelaya was whittling away at Honduras' shaky democratic system of government, and that this justified getting rid of him before he did more damage or became too powerful. But much of this case is speculative -- based on what we think Mr. Zelaya was up to. That's a huge problem that cannot just be conveniently swept aside.

Thus, in hindsight, the severity of what Mr. Zelaya actually did to merit a coup has a tendency to grow less and less convincing, particularly when you measure it by the severity of what the National Congress has done to destroy Honduran democracy since December 12, 2012 when it arbitrarily voted to dismiss four of the 15 Supreme Court justices (German Vicente García, José Elmer Lizardo Carranza, Víctor Manuel Lozano, and Silvia Trinidad Santos) for ruling in a way it did not like. That single move destroyed any semblance of an independent Judiciary. Unforgivable.

Thanks to President Lobo, Congressman Hernández, and all the members of Congress who were either strong-armed or purchased, Honduras now only has two branches -- the Executive and the Legislative. That is worse than anything Mel ever did.

If that weren't enough, in recent weeks it has become evident that President Lobo, Congressman Hernández, and a fair number of Congressional patsies are looking to impose censorship in Honduras as part of the so-called Telecommunications "Gag" Law. They will, of course, deny that that is the intent of the proposed legislation, but there is enough information about the bill leaking out to make an awful lot of intelligent and well-connected people in Honduras very concerned.

The Lobo administration and Congress have sought to assure everyone that they would never favor restrictions on freedom of expression. They are asking everyone to trust them. No. Don't trust them. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of speech... whatever you wish to call it, it's too important to allow a dysfunctional government to mess with. Ever since the visionary President Ramón Villeda Morales succeeded in pushing through the Freedom of Thought Law in 1958, Honduras has enjoyed a robust media -- TV and radio broadcasting, newspapers and magazines.

The Honduran media isn't perfect. Often, it is unprofessional, downright irresponsible, sometimes even criminal. But this is no excuse for destroying its freedoms and independence. If the Lobo administration and Congress succeed in passing a law that censors freedom of expression in Honduras, then it will have put the final nail in the coffin of Honduran democracy. Honduras will be under a defacto dictatorial regime, and we will all be left asking... "Ah, tell me again what was so bad about Mel Zelaya?"