Is President Obama of the Opinion That Presidents Are Above the Law?

SHAMEFUL is the only way to describe the heavy-handed, premature support of the Obama administration for ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

By publicly and aggressively coming to Zelaya’s defense, the administration encouraged other governments and institutions to follow its lead.

Without justification, the removal of President Zelaya from office was dubbed a “coup d’ etat” that must be reversed. The visas of members of the interim government were revoked and $30 million in aid terminated. Even worse has been the sanctioning of the Honduran independent judiciary and the withdrawal of visas of all 15 judges of the Honduran Supreme Court. So much for the separation of powers. Most would agree that an independent judiciary is a central component of democracy.

Now comes the threat of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming Honduran elections in November, even though all the candidates were chosen before the crisis occurred, Zelaya was not eligible to run in any event, foreign observers will be invited to oversee the electoral process, the elections will be supervised by the independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and total transparency is promised, along with the stepping down of the interim president, Roberto Micheletti, former president of the Congress. Whatever happened to the long-standing U.S. policy of supporting free and fair elections in the region?

Zelaya contends his ouster was illegal, but a review of the event suggests otherwise. The unrest reached a tipping point in May when then President Zelaya, apparently trying to extend his term in office, sought to hold a referendum on changing the Honduran Constitution, which currently limits the president to one four-year term. According to the Honduran Constitution, only the Electoral Tribunal and Congress can call for a referendum, and the Supreme Court ruled against President Zelaya stating his request was unconstitutional.

President Zelaya then ordered his military chief of staff to distribute the referendum ballots in defiance of the Court order. When he refused to go against the Court, President Zelaya fired him, and in protest the heads of the army, navy, and air force resigned, along with the minister of defense, who had been a close friend of the president.

Undeterred, President Zelaya and a mob of supporters stormed the building on the military base where the ballots, supplied by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, were stored and attempted to distribute them. This was an unprecedented power grab by the president.
Agreeing with the Court, the attorney general, noting the illegality of the referendum, announced he would prosecute anyone involved in carrying it out. The Supreme Court then ruled, by a vote of 15 – 0, that President Zelaya had acted illegally by proceeding with the referendum and ordered the military⎯the appropriate agency to carry out such an order under Honduran law⎯to arrest him on June 28.
(Article 4 of the Honduran Constitution limits the president to one four-year term. Article 239 of the Constitution states that whoever amends or attempts to amend the Article on term limits to extend the term of office will be immediately removed from public office.
Article 272 states that the army must enforce compliance with the Constitution particularly with respect to presidential succession.
Article 313 states the Supreme Court can commandeer the armed forces to carry out its rulings).

Some have said the Congress should have impeached Zelaya first and then tried him but reportedly there is no provision in the Honduran Constitution for such action.

Honduran institutions supporting the Court’s action include the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the administrative Law Tribunal, the independent Human Rights Ombudsman, four of the five political parties, the two major presidential candidates of the Liberal and National parties, and Honduras’s Catholic cardinal, who had been a faithful Zelaya follower.

The Supreme Court ordered the military to arrest Zelaya; then the decision, well-meaning but perhaps unwise and possibly illegal, was made to place Zelaya in exile in Costa Rica for fear of mob violence, as had happened previously in Bolivia and had been threatened by Zelaya. The Honduran Congress voted overwhelmingly in support of the action, including a majority of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, and met in emergency session to designate the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president, the vice president having resigned previously to become a presidential candidate. This is the procedure set forth in the Constitution. Zelaya is also accused of misappropriating public funds by withdrawing $2 million to finance his referendum.

The Obama administration continues to pressure the interim government to let Zelaya return to power. A first effort at negotiating the standoff was the San Jose Accord, arbitrated by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias, which allowed Zelaya to be restored to power until the end of his term in January. The Accord was unacceptable to the interim government and no progress was made.

Next came The Guaymuras Dialogue with representatives of Zelaya, who is now resident in the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras, meeting with the four major presidential candidates, representatives of the Micheletti interim government, and other members of civil society. Although some progress has been reported, Zelaya is still insisting he must be reinstated as president, and the government representatives refuse to let that happen. First, they believe his return would be illegal under Honduran law, and second, they fear the damage he could and would do in the time between the November elections and the January inauguration.

In recent days a U.S. delegation arrived in Honduras tasked with trying to resolve the impasse. On October 30 all parties to the negotiations announced that a power-sharing agreement has been reached. Whether Zelaya will be reinstated as president will be decided by the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress, according to the report, perhaps not until after the elections. In return, the United States will recognize the elections and will withdraw its sanctions. Is this a victory for the Obama administration’s power play or an escape from misguided policy? As I post this, the answer is unclear. The plus is that the crisis was settled with little blood shed. The negative is that a man may be returned to power in violation of the Honduran Constitution, which is not a victory for democracy or the rule of law.