Since the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, there has been no successful coup in Latin American, until last week when the Honduran army bundled President Manuel Zelaya from the presidential palace and sent him?in his pajamas?into forced exile in Costa Rica.
The coup surprised observers in Latin America who believed the region had turned a page in its tumultuous past of bloody US-backed coups. Condemning the coup, US President Barack Obama said, ?I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.? The putsch pushed Honduras on the edge of political instability and civil war, and reopened the Left-Right ideological cleavage in Latin America.
Roberto Micheletti, speaker of the National Congress, was named by the Congress as interim president, following the coup that was triggered by Zelaya?s bid to hold a referendum seeking to amend the Constitution and extend his stay in office. What sparked the coup was Zelaya?s refusal to comply with a Supreme Court ruling against his planned referendum on whether to hold a Constituent assembly that would amend the Constitution. (Surely there is a lesson there for our political leaders: it is dangerous to tinker with the Constitution to extend terms of office.)
Zelaya is a wealthy landlord, a member of the class that has dominated the Honduran power elite. His popularity was hovering at about 30 percent when he was deposed, a mite higher than the negative popularity rating of our own President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose allies in the House of Representatives are pushing for the convening of Congress as a Constituent assembly to amend the Constitution, which critics believe is intended to extend her term which expires in June 2010.
Zelaya tried to return to Tegucigalda, Honduras? capital last Sunday to reclaim the presidency, but coup leaders blocked his plane from landing. If he succeeds in returning, Zelaya faces arrest for 18 alleged criminal acts, including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since he took office in 2006. Zelaya also defied a Supreme Court ruling against his planned referendum on whether to hold an assembly to consider changing the Constitution. His political rivals ordered the military to remove him and stop the referendum, fearing that he would use his class-based supporters to push for a socialist state.
As his aircraft, loaned by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, circled the capital in a fly by, Zelaya?s supporters clashed with pro-government groups. Rows of soldiers and police in body armor were reported guarding the perimeter fence at the airport when demonstrators breached the security around the runway. Dozens of tear gas canisters were launched, and gunfire were reportedly coming from the terminal building. Two people were reported killed. Army trucks, their headlights blazing, had been lined up on the runway. The plane turned back and headed for Nicaragua.
When Zelaya was 30 minutes away from the airport, he called for the army to obey his orders and, for the sake of the country, to allow his plane to land. The soldiers did not obey. This is the danger when soldiers have the option to obey or disobey a leader they have deposed.
Last Sunday, Zelaya won international support after his ouster. But several Latin American presidents, who had originally planned to accompany him, thought it was too dangerous to fly in his plane.
The military solution drew international condemnation. The Organization of American States suspended Honduras on Saturday for refusing to reinstate Zelaya, the strongest move yet by foreign governments to isolate Honduras. Without OAS membership, Honduras faces trade sanctions and the loss of hundred of millions of dollars in subsidized oil, aid and loans.
Honduras relies heavily on exports, notably bananas and coffee. A senior US administration official is reported to have expressed some frustration with Zelaya, saying he rejected advice from the US and others not to press for the constitutional change. Zelaya has another seven months to serve out his term.
Obama has condemned the coup, even as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua rallied behind Zelaya. According to the Financial Times, Zelaya joined the Chavez axis of the ?21 century socialists? last year, not least to get access to concessionary Venezuelan oil. He was also attracted by some Latin American leaders? ability to prolong their mandates by changing the constitution. In an editorial, the Financial Times said, ?The Honduran army was right to refuse Zelaya?s order to go ahead with a referendum anyway.?
Most of the criticisms about the coup centered on the military method of political change after 30 years of experience with brutal military dictatorships that ruled 13 of 20 republics in Latin America. The editorial commented: ?Had Zelaya tried to stay on beyond the end of his term in January, he could have been impeached. What the army?s overreaction has done is to weaken the institutions in a country and region where support for democracy is loosely rooted, to give the blustering Mr. Chavez another regional pulpit and to rally the continent behind a third rate president.?
An army coup and an election-driven extension of presidential term is both unwelcome in the Philippines. Our idea of change is to elect a new president in May 2010.