Republican Backers of Honduras Coup

Matthew Berger

Honduras Funeral, photo: Delmer Membreno
Honduras Funeral, photo: Delmer Membreno

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 22 (IPS)  – While negotiations stall between the ousted and de facto governments of Honduras on the issue of whether former president Manuel Zelaya will be reinstated prior to the country’s elections next month, an increasingly relevant question is whether the international community would be willing to recognize the results of elections that occur under the unelected, interim government’s watch.

The legitimacy of the elections may hinge in large part on the U.S.’s stance toward them. The Barack Obama administration condemned the coup earlier this summer and a U.S. State Department spokesperson told IPS Wednesday, “Given the climate on the ground right now, we’d be unable to recognize elections.”

She affirmed that the State Department supports the reinstatement of Zelaya prior to elections.

This statement of support for Zelaya follows comments by several members of the U.S. Congress that have tried to raise doubts over the firmness of the administration’s stance.

The elections are scheduled for Nov. 29, exactly five months and a day after a coup forced Zelaya out of the country following accusations he had violated the country’s constitution by polling on whether the people wanted to amend the constitution to extend his term limit.

Meanwhile, the de facto government, led by interim president Roberto Micheletti, has been accused of violating the civil liberties and eroding freedom of the press in Honduras, as well as using excessive force against demonstrators.

Wednesday, the Brazilian ambassador to the Organization of American States Ruy de Lima Casaes e Silva accused the government of “torture” for continuing to bombard their embassy, which has housed Zelaya since he snuck back into the country Sep. 21, with loud noises and bright lights throughout the night. He also condemned the restriction of food deliveries and the repeated spraying of demonstrators at the compound with tear gas.

These conditions make up the “climate on the ground” that many see as preventing legitimate elections from taking place under the current government.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., a small but vocal group of Republican politicians have gone against the global consensus in choosing to actively support the de facto Honduran government that has taken the place of Zelaya, who had allied himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).

Accusations that this contingent is undermining the Obama administration’s effort to isolate Micheletti government are balanced by its accusations that the administration is indirectly supporting Chavez and his socialist agenda in the region.

Radical Cuban-American Rep. Praises Coup

Nine Republican members of Congress have traveled to Honduras since the Jun. 28 coup in order to demonstrate their recognition of the country’s interim leaders, among them Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, who said in a statement Tuesday, “Rather than seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the November elections, the U.S. should be commending the people of Honduras for their commitment to [holding elections].”

While this support of the de facto government comes from a minority of the minority party, it is “extremely harmful” to the negotiations and democratic processes in Honduras, contends Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human in Latin America.

“A small number of minority members of Congress have given oxygen to the de facto regime,” Gass said Thursday.

Another member of this minority, Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, has been holding up the nominations of two Obama administration Latin America appointees in protest of the administration’s position on Honduras.

In a letter to Senate leaders, nine former U.S. assistant secretaries of state for the Western Hemisphere have written that DeMint’s actions have “damaged” U.S. relations in the hemisphere.

Too Much or Not Enough

The administration has also been criticized from the other side, as other governments have seen it as not using its full influence to reinstate Zelaya.

Among the actions the administration has taken to press the de facto Honduran government to negotiate and, eventually, step aside are the suspension and denial of visas. For the second time since June, the State Department suspended the visas of coup backers Wednesday.

The Battle of Honduras continues after nearly four months of conflict.  Photo: Delmer Membreño
The Battle of Honduras continues after nearly four months of conflict. Photo: Delmer Membreño

The primary justification for the dissenting Republicans’ position, and increasingly for that of the interim Honduran government, is a report issued in August by the U.S.’s Law Library of Congress.

The report has caused a flurry of op-eds in Washington as it calls the coup, with the exception of the removal of Zelaya from the country, constitutional under Honduran law.

The basis of this claim is that, according to report author Norma Gutiérrez, the Honduran Congress has the power to “disapprove of the conduct of the president.”

The Congress “implicitly exercised its power of constitutional interpretation in the case of Zelaya when it decided that its power to ‘disapprove’ the president’s actions encompassed the power to remove him”, the report says.

But in neither English nor Spanish can the word “disapprove” be interpreted to mean “remove from power”, said Doug Cassel, a law professor at Notre Dame University who specializes in human rights law, at a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The report’s legal arguments do not pass the “straight-face test”, Cassel said. He argued it puts forward an interpretation of the Honduran constitution that is indefensible and was never made by the Congress or the Supreme Court.

Cassel also pointed out that the main logical jump made in the report – that Congress’s power to “disapprove” encompasses the power to remove the president from office – cites only Guillermo Pérez-Cadalso, a former Honduran Supreme Court Justice and coup supporter and whom Gutiérrez writes “confirmed” her interpretation of this power.

These arguments notwithstanding, the report has been waved about in the debate in Washington as well as by the Honduran government as evidence of the coup’s legitimacy.

Concerned over the influence of the 10-page document, WOLA organized a meeting with the Law Library of Congress Thursday morning, but both Gutierrez and her assistant became “suddenly unavailable” the night before, according to Gass.

At the meeting, the library representatives agreed to come up with a frequently asked questions document, but not a retraction, she said.

She says this raises questions of whether the Law Library is “oblivious to the damage it has caused” in efforts to resolve the crisis in Honduras.

The influence of even a small number of U.S. lawmakers and experts does seem to be having an inordinate impact on the ground in Honduras.

Micheletti can persist in isolation, said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch at the Capitol Hill hearing, “and with a bit of support from some in the U.S. Congress, he will feel he can have these elections and get away with it.”