Honduran election over, but legacy of 2009 constitutional ouster endures

By John Gizzi | January 27, 2014

President-elect Juan Orlando HernandezXiomara Castro and her husband ousted President Manuel Zelaya

Just two months after the presidential election in Honduras was held and President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez prepares to take office today, it is clear that the Honduran people as well as the international community have accepted the outcome.

The 45-year-old Hernandez, leader of the right-of-center National Party (PN) and past president of the Congress, was certified on December 12th by the Honduran Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE) as the winner of the November 24th eight-candidate race, following an appeal by the opposition. World leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama have called him with congratulations and the White House announced it would send a presidential delegation to attend the inauguration.

But to runner-up Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the election may not be over. Placing second (28.78% of the vote) to Hernandez (36.6%), the wife of deposed President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya charged fraud at the polls. To Castro de Zelaya, the declaration of Hernandez as the winner was merely a reaffirmation of the alleged coup that ousted her husband in 2009. This is despite the fact that Zelaya won a seat in Congress and the new Congress is divided among parties and has a strong opposition presence.

Insisting in the immediate aftermath of the vote she was the winner of the contest, the 54-year-old Castro de Zelaya told a wildly cheering rally “this triumph is being stolen by those who have turned the electoral system into a farce, by falsifying voting records and adulerating electoral results.”

“Sisters and brothers,” she shouted, “let us peacefully take to the streets that we came from!”

Priliminary candidate election returns November 24, 2013

The crowd then chanted: “To the streets! To the streets! To the streets!”

Before and after the voting, much of the campaign for President of Honduras seemed to be about the events of four years ago that sent the leftist Mel Zelaya into exile in Costa Rica wearing his pajamas. Much as Argentina’s Christina Fernandez ran for president in 2005 after her late husband Nestor Kirchner was barred from seeking re-election, Zelaya de Castro became the presidential nominee of her husband’s newly-created Libre Party. Like Mel Zelaya, Xiomara ran on a decidedly left-of-center, populist platform: opposing the market-oriented agenda of the ruling National Party and the strong role of the military in Honduran society.

In keeping with other regional populists, Xiomara also campaigned hard for re-writing the national constitution—code for scrapping the long-standing ban on presidents seeking re-election or even suggesting that they be permitted to run for more than one consecutive term.

This was precisely the reason that the courts used to justify ousting her husband from office in 2009.

The National Party’s Hernandez campaigned hard on maintaining the open-market, pro-CAFTA-DR economic agenda of outgoing President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and his predecessors. At a time when the explosion of youth gangs has led to murder rates doubling since 2005, Hernandez ran as a hard-nosed “law and order” candidate.

Hernandez also made no secret of his view the 2009 removal Zelaya was justified, and not just a “coup.” However, the “coup” is the issue that will not die in Honduras, or among Latin America-watchers.

Zelaya’s Ouster Was Constitutional

In March of 2009, a constitutionally term-limited President Zelaya began suggesting the need to rewrite the country’s constitution. Well aware that the constitution had a strict ban on presidents seeking re-election, he realized that the only way to get around this and run again was through an entirely new constitution. He, therefore, began promoting ways to achieve this, including taking steps to call a convention.

In response to Zelaya’s efforts, the Honduran attorney general, an independent government official, sought and obtained a court order halting the president’s actions. In defiance of a court order, Zelaya proceeded with his plan for a referendum calling for a constitutional convention. This included printing of ballots, which were conveniently printed in Venezuela under the aegis of the late Castro-favorite, Hugo Chavez. The ballots were impounded, but Zelaya incited his followers and vowed to attempt to seize them and hold what they called an “opinion poll” on June 28th of that year.

The “opinion poll” had all the hallmarks of a voting process, with printed ballot to be placed in ballot boxes.

One who carefully studied the Honduran Constitution and believes what followed was in accordance with it is Miguel Estrada. A native Honduran who came to the U.S., graduated from Harvard Law School, and was a federal prosecutor, Estrada is best-known for his appointment by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals that was held up in the Senate so long that the nominee eventually asked that it be withdrawn.

At a July briefing for reporters on the events in Honduras, Estrada noted that “on June 25th, the Supreme Court concluded [Zelaya] was engaged in conduct that is treason and issued a warrant for his arrest.”

He specifically cited Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, which states that any president who so much as proposes amending the document to permit re-election “must immediately cease the discharge of their duties and shall be disqualified for ten years from the exercise of any public function.”

The military acted on the court’s order and arrested Zelaya under Article 272 of the Constitution which charges the armed forces with defending “the primacy of the Constitution, the principles of the universal suffrage, and alternation in the exercise of Presidency of the Republic [italics added].”

Estrada pointed out how the Honduran Congress (which was dominated by the deposed president’s own Liberal party) met following his arrest voted overwhelmingly (122 to 6) to agree to his removal from office. Since Zelaya’s vice president had already quit to run for President in the November elections, Robert Micheletti, the majority leader and a member of Zelaya’s party, was elected president by Congress.

But at the same briefing, Estrada said “it was very hard to conclude” that the now-famous deportation of the pajama-clad president was justified. He cited Article 102 of the constitution specifically says that Hondurans “may not be extradited to any foreign state.”

“They should have just put him in jail,” said Estrada. (For its part, the Honduran military claimed that it concluded there was no jail that would hold the deposed president and a protest in the capital city of Tegucigalpa might well have led soldiers to “fire on a mob.”)

While questioning the actions of the military in deporting Zelaya, Estrada nevertheless concluded that the Obama Administration erred in cutting off aid to Honduras because of the action. As he put it, “public opinion is looking at it the wrong way” and, in concluding that the democratic order was broken, the Obama Administration made moves that were “incautious.”

On the same day of Estrada’s briefing, this reporter brought up his case that the Honduran constitution justified the ouster of Zelaya at the regular session for White House reporters. Asked if the President was aware that his position demanding Zelaya’s restoration to power was in violation of Honduran law, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied: “I don’t have a good understanding of the President’s understanding of Honduran law” and promised to check with the State Department.

Gibbs then restated the Administration’s position that “the actions that were taken were not in accordance with democratic principles.”

Is U.S. Still Paying Attenton To Honduras?

In discussing the November 2012 Honduran election with Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times correspondent in Central America and best-selling author, the subject came up about how conservative Republicans in Washington almost universally supported the 2009 coup against Zelaya.

“Do [Florida Rep. and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman] Ilean Ros-Lehtinen or [former South Carolina Senator and present Heritage Foundation President] Jim DeMint care anything about Honduras after the coup?” asked Kinzer, author of “Bitter Fruit,” a book on the U.S.-backed coup against Guatemala’s left-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. “They were all for ousting Zelaya and you heard a lot about Honduras from them in 2009. But you haven’t heard a word since.”

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen disagrees. A spokesman for the congresswoman said that she has been closely monitoring Honduras from her seat on the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of Foreign Affairs. The rising crime rate in Honduras is why, Ros-Lehtinen said recently, “the police and the military need to be professionalized.” She also called on the U.S. to strengthen ties between Honduran prosecutors and vetted police so they can “thoroughly investigate cases and prosecute criminals under the law.” Most recently, Ros-Lehtinen congratulated President-elect Hernandez.

Whatever the Obama Administration or any other American official does with the new Administration in Honduras, it almost surely will have to do with the rampant rise in crime.

“With an annual homicide rate of 85.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants—an average of 598 a month, 20 a day according to a 2012 study conducted by the Violence Observatory at the Honduran National Autonomous University—no place in the region is more violent,” concluded Carlos Lauria and Sara Rafsky in “Americas Quarterly.”

The causes they cite for Honduras becoming the crime capital of Latin America include the rise in youth gangs, the presence of the Mexican drug cartels that have expanded beyond its borders, and “the societal breakdown following the 2009 military-supported coup that ousted former President Manuel Zelaya.” The legacy of the Zelaya coup will endure for some time to come.

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.