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Updated 07/15/2009

Backgrounder: Making Sense of the Honduran Coup

The current conflict is rooted in a series of events reaching back to the earlier part of the Zelaya presidency and set against a backdrop of fragile democratic institutions that have never truly risen above the culture of political patronage, questionable business influence, and corruption that has pervaded the country in the years since a democratically elected government took hold in 1982. Zelaya came into power in 2005 as a business-friendly centrist from the more liberal of the two political parties—among a total of five or six—that regularly trade off presidential and congressional power. In 2007 he grew closer to Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, first agreeing to join Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s oil subsidy program, and in 2008 joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Chavez’s trading cadre of leftist countries, meant to be a counterpoint to the failed U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Although outside analysts don’t see Zelaya as an ideological leftist in the Chavez mold, the exiled president’s close relationship with the Venezuelan president has alienated the powerful elite in Honduras, including many in his own party, sparking rumors that he intends a Chavez-style usurpation of power. These rumors began to come to a head in November 2008 when Zelaya proposed a nonbinding opinion poll to gauge public support for the establishment of a "cuarta urna," or fourth ballot box (the first three are for presidential, congressional and local elections), during the November 2009 elections, to offer voters a chance to support a revision of the current constitution via a constitutional convention. The Citizen Participation Law of 2006 reportedly gave Zelaya the power to conduct the poll, titled "Survey of Public Opinion Convoking a National Constitutional Convention."

The Honduran constitution, the latest of roughly a dozen that have governed the country since it declared independence from Spain in 1838, was adopted in 1982. While it allows for wide latitude in amendments and changes—indeed, it has been reformed 22 of the 27 years it has existed—there are three foundational principles that are unchangeable: the form of government (i.e., a democratic republic), the integrity of the country’s territory and borders, and the one-term limitation on the presidency.

It is this last article that has been the source of much contention in recent months, as Zelaya’s political enemies charge he wants to change the constitution to give himself a Chavez-style mandate for “continuismo,” or continuous power. Zelaya and his allies have been vague about their goals for the "cuarta urna," but there appears to be no record of them proposing an extension of presidential term limits. At face value, opponents’ charges don’t seem to hold water. Even if it were possible to bring up a change in term limits during a constitutional convention, that process would entail four years of dialogue after the new president is elected in November, followed by a vote on proposed reforms. Thus, even if the constitution were ultimately altered to allow for a change in presidential term limits, the earliest a president could run for reelection would be more than four years from now—long after the end of Zelaya's term in office.

Zelaya ran a fairly vigorous campaign to support his measures, drawing grassroots community activists, labor unions and some of the smaller left-wing political parties into the fold. Independent of some ideological leftists that would support a Chavez-style government—an idea of which they’ve never been disabused—these groups include those with an earnest desire to be more fairly represented in a government which has heretofore largely ignored the large swath of the desperately poor and otherwise dispossessed. Although Zelaya’s exact intentions are still far from clear, the hope that a constitutional referendum would address these issues fueled support for him among these groups.

Opposition to Zelaya’s plan had run high, especially among the business and political elite in the country, which control the two main parties as well as a vast majority of media outlets. The Court for Contentious-Administrative Proceedings ruled the poll was unconstitutional in May, a decision that was backed by the Supreme Court. A few days before the poll was set to take place, the Congress passed a law banning referendums within 180 days of a presidential election—however, it reportedly made no mention of surveys. On June 26, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared that the "cuarta urna" violated the constitution and electoral law, and that the poll materials, which had been printed in Venezuela, were illegal.

Zelaya forged ahead regardless, even firing Army Chief of Staff Romeo Vásquez Velásquez—who later executed Zelaya’s removal from the country—for not agreeing to carry out the poll. Events in the week leading up to the coup are well documented and generally agreed upon, but less well known is that the arrest warrants for Zelaya were issued on June 25, three days before they were executed, and were allegedly shown to a group of Latin American magistrates at a conference at that time, presumably to build support among those countries for this action.

It is clear now that Zelaya's deportation was an illegal act. The Supreme Court reportedly ordered that he be arrested and sent to criminal court, but the army defied that order and instead sent him into exile. The Honduran army's top legal adviser admitted military leaders knew they were breaking the law, which forbids the forceful expulsion of legal citizens, but claimed that Zelaya's removal from the country was necessary to protect public order and safety.

Questions remain concerning the documents used to justify Zelaya’s arrest. Honduran legal experts familiar with the search and arrest warrants and the Supreme Court document summarizing charges against Zelaya—which include treason and defiance of court orders—consider them plausibly legal, although Zelaya has not been allowed to contest them and, overall, has been denied due process. Neither the arrest warrants nor Zelaya's alleged resignation letter have been made available for public review. According to Enrique Reina, the new Honduran ambassador to the United States, Zelaya has never been presented with any of these documents nor allowed legal counsel or defense.

For perspectives on the events leading up to the coup and further analysis:

"Honduras Supreme Court: It Was 'Common Knowledge' That Zelaya Was No Longer President." Jules Siegel. The Huffington Post, July 13, 2009.

"Showdown in 'Tegucigolpe.'" Stephen Zunes. Foreign Policy in Focus, July 10, 2009.

"Caudillismo in Action: Looking Back on Honduras’ Plight." Larry Birns and Tomás Ayuso. Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 7, 2009.

"Behind the Honduran Coup." Goeff Thale. Washington Office on Latin America,  July 1, 2009.

Original copies of Honduran documents:

Announcement of the "Survey of Public Opinion Convoking a National Constitutional Convention," published in the national gazette (Part 1 and 2)

Copy of the 2006 Law of Citizen Participation, published in the national gazette (PDF)