Yesterday, still in his pajamas and from an airport in Costa Rica, (former?) Honduran President Manuel Zelaya gave an improvised press conference. Hours before, he had been deposed by members of the Honduran Armed Forces and flown to San José. A coup d'état had taken place in Tegucigalpa.
The reason why President Zelaya was "kidnapped" (in his own words) and sent to Costa Rica was that he had been more than adamant in his desire to ask the Honduran people in a referendum whether they wanted a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution for their country. However, at the heart of this initiative was Mr. Zelaya's even greater desire to stay in power for four more years: his term ends next January and the current constitution limits the President to one term only.
The operation that ended in Mr. Zelaya's deposition by force was backed by Honduras' Congress, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Electoral Authority and of course, the Armed Forces. In the past few weeks the President had become involved in a political and juridical battle with the opponents of his referendum, all of whom maintained that the initiative could not go on, because it was illegal. After the chief of the Armed Forces, Romeo Vásquez, refused to help Zelaya coordinate the vote, citing its illegality, the President fired him. The Supreme Court, backed by the Attorney General, ruled that General Vásquez could not be fired for that reason, and ordered that he be reintegrated to his position. With a my way or the highway attitude, Mr. Zelaya went himself, followed by 2,000-odd supporters, to get all the ballot papers at the Air Force base where they were stored. He was going to have his referendum (which he had rebaptized as an "opinion poll") anyway. On Sunday morning, when the vote was supposed to occur, members of the Armed Forces entered the presidential house and, gun in hand, made him leave the country.
Latin American and other world governments have condemned the removal of Mr. Zelaya from power. Especially forceful has been the response from President Hugo Chávez, an ally of Mr. Zelaya, who told his other regional allies to meet in Nicaragua in order to find a way to restore Mr. Zelaya to the presidency. So far, the presidents of the countries that form Chavez's socialist block have declared that their countries will set up trade sanctions against Honduras.
In the meantime, the Honduran Congress has named a new civilian president, who seems to be in full command of the Armed Forces, but that nobody has recognized internationally. To this point, his chances of getting any legitimacy outside of his country look very dim.
So why did this happen and what can we expect now? President Zelaya was not deposed only because he wanted to change the constitution and get himself reelected. Rather, he was seen as too close to President Hugo Chávez and the country's politicians, judges and entrepreneurs wanted to prevent a Chavez-like concentration of power in Mr. Zelaya's hands. No doubt, Mr. Zelaya miscalculated when he kept pushing for his referendum in the face of huge opposition from the judicial and legislative powers. He also made a gross miscalculation about the extent of his control over the military. Firing General Vásquez also created uncertainty over the other Army generals who feared that the President could fire more of them if they opposed his referendum. He pushed the system too far, and those people who felt they had interests to protect reacted by getting rid of him.
Now, Mr. Zelaya is a sad figure in Nicaragua trying to get his presidency back. And he should get it back. Even if we dislike President Chávez, his policies and his allies, even if we dislike Mr. Zelaya a little, Honduras is in a worse situation now that President Zelaya has been deposed. The new government in Tegucigalpa will spend the rest of its days being despised by the world and the rest of Latin America. Don't expect anyone to recognize them as the legitimate government of the country, and so, they will only bring painful sanctions on their own people. No country can thrive if it's government is isolated from the rest of the world. In this time of democracy for Latin America, nobody likes a government that came to power by By kicking Mr. Zelaya out, the new leaders of the country have also made a gross miscalculation. They forgot that nobody can claim to defend democracy by using antidemocratic means.
However, it won't be easy for Mr. Zelaya to get his presidency back. Even if President Chávez is kind of threatening a military operation, the chances of this occurring in reality are small. Also, even if there still are thousands who support President Zelaya inside Honduras, the grip on power of the new government seems strong. In the next few weeks, the country will probably slide slowly into normalcy. As of now, most people have not stopped their daily activities and are going to work. If there is not a change in the situation within the next month or so, it seems that Mr. Zelaya will be destined to remain Latin America's most recently overthrown president. Nonetheless, Mr. Zelaya is due to address the UN General Assembly tomorrow, which does signal the support that he is receiving from the international community.
So, between the president who wanted to get himself reelected at all costs, and the leadership who got their way to the top through a coup, we choose the former. Even if he is not the President that Honduras needs, Mr. Zelaya is the President that Hondurans elected. And with an illegitimate group of people in his place, with no recognition from any other country, the ordinary Honduran will be the one to bear the consequences.