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Let me say upfront, unequivocally: what occurred on June 28, 2009, in Honduras was a coup and should be condemned for the violation of constitutional, democratic rule that it is. And unlike the street coups that removed Presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Bolivia) or Lucio Gutiérrez (Ecuador), this one was positively 1970s-style retrograde: the marching of military officers into President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales’ residence, his forced removal (or kidnapping as he called it) at gun point, his being placed by military brass on a plane to be flown out of the country, and the swearing in of a new president, Roberto Micheletti—the speaker of the Honduran Congress. But let’s be clear. This event has been brewing for some time and regional governments and multilateral institutions have sat on the sidelines. Their reaction now—while correct—underscores their passiveness earlier, and turns a President who had been bent on steamrolling the checks and balances of power to secure re-election into an unnecessary victim.
Despite the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court’s superficial efforts to give this a constitutional fig leaf, the sacking of President Zelaya represents a genuine threat to the shared democratic vision and system of governance that most of the region has enjoyed for over two decades and violates the body of regional law and precedent defending democratic governments from the “interruption of the constitutional order.” In short order, as they should have done, the governments of the region have denounced President Zelaya’s removal and called for the restoration of democratic government.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has also joined the fray, holding a special meeting of the Permanent Council at the request of Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, denouncing the coup and calling for an ad-hoc meeting of the General Assembly on June 30, 2009, in Washington, DC. In a press release, the Permanent Council cited the OAS 2001 Democratic Charter.
Since 1991 and the OAS’s Santiago Declaration, the hemisphere’s regional body has been committed to defending democratic governance. And the declaration has worked; in places like Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, and Paraguay the OAS has sprung into action when constitutional governments have found their mandates interrupted.
But then, in reaction to the lack of engagement of the OAS in the slow-motion de-institutionalization of Peru under President Alberto Fujimori in 1999 and 2000, the OAS General Assembly meeting in Lima, Peru approved what become known as the Democratic Charter, on September 11, 2001. The newly muscular charter was supposed to provide the means for the OAS to weigh in and protect democratic governments, institutions and rights when threatened by their erosion, by detailing and committing the OAS to defend the checks and balances of representative democracy and minority rights.
But in cases like Venezuela, and now Honduras, it has proven toothless. In the case of Honduras, President Zelaya passed over the head of the Congress to call for vote on June 28 that would have allowed a national referendum in October on a series of unspecified-constitutional reforms, including the removal of term limits to allow him to run for re-election. President Zelaya’s plan was constitutionally questionable from the beginning, bypassing the Congress and opposed by the Supreme Court. When the head of the army expressed his disapproval he was removed, even though the Supreme Court called for his restoration.
Each of these actions to tear down checks and balances and consolidate executive power should—in theory—have triggered the consideration of the OAS under the Democratic Charter. But they didn’t. And now we’re left with an OAS that is—rightly—condemning a coup that could have possibly been averted and forced to call for the return of a President who himself had done little to respect his own constitution.