July 1st, 2009
03:23 PM ET

A coup is a coup: Lessons from Honduras

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/07/01/honduras.coup.OAS/art.president.honduras.un.jpg caption="Ousted Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya appears Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly."]

Joy Olson
Executive Director, Washington Office on Latin America

Make no mistake, the sudden and clandestine removal of a president, while still in his pajamas, by the military is certainly a coup. Yes, military coups can still happen in Central America and there are lessons to be drawn from the recent coup d’etat in Honduras.

Neighboring countries and the U.S. continue to craft their responses to the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. It is clear, however, that the best way to deal with Central America’s first coup since 1993 is through multilateral engagement via the Organization of American States (OAS).

While some seek to stoke regional tensions by interpreting the situation in Honduras as related to Venezuela, multi-lateral dialogue offers a less polarizing solution to Honduras’ latest political turmoil. Restoring democracy in Honduras with OAS involvement offers a unique opportunity to strengthen relations throughout the hemisphere, forge consensus, and reinvigorate a regional body that is crucial in safeguarding human rights and democracy.

So far, the U.S. and most other OAS members have taken steps in this direction. The OAS Permanent Council met yesterday, and in the coming days an OAS delegation led by Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza plans to accompany President Zelaya in his return to Honduras.

It is not clear what awaits the ousted President upon his arrival. The Honduran Congress and Supreme Court have maintained their determination to have him arrested, and his safety may be at risk. The U.S., as well as the rest of the international community, should strongly back the OAS in its efforts to resolve the conflict. Returning the democratically elected president to power is only the beginning of this complicated situation.

It’s important to remember that underlying this crisis are institutional weaknesses and social tensions that have been chipping away at the foundation of democracy in Honduras for years.

Honduras is the third poorest country in Latin America, and social exclusion and discontent run high among the majority of the population. Many are dissatisfied with what they perceive as an unresponsive political system and bankrupt parties. Zelaya’s plan to hold a non-binding referendum, about whether Constitutional reform should be an issue voted on in the November federal elections, was symptomatic of the political frustration across the country.

Many feel that the Constitution, written when civilians wrestled control of the government from the military in the mid 1980s, did not live up to expectations. In fact, many Hondurans who did not necessarily support Zelaya were in support of Constitutional reform. Any sustainable resolution to the current coup will need to deal with these long-term problems, and international support will be key.

While the U.S. works within the OAS to respond to the situation, the Obama Administration must comply with U.S. law that orders the withdrawal of foreign assistance in the event of a military coup.

WOLA has heard of numerous reports of government violence against protesters, the unlawful detention of social activists, and accounts of political leaders going into hiding out of fear. The world is watching to see if the U.S. can stick with a multilateral approach, and the Obama Administration should seize this opportunity to work with the OAS to promote democracy and the rule of law in Honduras.

After all, as we are learning, working multi-laterally, although at times challenging, is enormously beneficial.

Editor’s Note: Joy Olson is the Executive Director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). WOLA promotes human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice in Latin America since 1974. WOLA has played a key role in all major Washington policy debates over human rights in Latin America.

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. biosnap

    By the way the theory about the OAS relationship with latinamericans is totally wrong foreign interpretation... latinamerican people is totally angry because nobody cares that Zelaya had crimes to face in Honduras. OAS is fully supporting Zelaya without consider the reasons why the Coup was done. In countries like Colombia, Chile, Brazil, México who are very important in the region the people is uncomfortable with OAS (even when their presidents say the contrary because a basic diplomatic rule) and also they are totally against Zelaya´s latest decisions trying to abolish the Constitution (which by the way is a Coup without militars like Peruvian President Fujimori did)... People in latina america are agree to say that Zelaya was violating constitution in his country and also is a puppet of Hugo Chávez´s Neo-oil-imperialism. US had lost all control of the region 1 because Bush adm, never understood and never cares what was happening with YOUR NEIGHBORS and y 2 because Obama is confronting severe internal problems with economic crisis and had found that Chávez has more economical power on the region that US reason enough to be concern because he has around the corner a guy who deal with the worse regimes in the world and has allies like Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabgue, Rusia, China, and orth Korea among others...

    July 2, 2009 at 8:29 am |
  2. Hector Salgado (Berkeley, California)

    I think Obama is dessapointing a lot of Latin American countries. His Latin American foreign policy is sounding more like Al Pacino in 'The Godfather Part III': every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in!"

    July 2, 2009 at 2:47 am |
  3. David

    This is a test- can we blog without being monitored?

    July 1, 2009 at 11:54 pm |
  4. David

    I believe that the confessions of news reporters in Iran are accurate – look what the media feeds America

    In bed with press test 3

    July 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm |
  5. Ivette Velasquez

    I can't believe that the UN are forcing us to take Zelaya back as our president. Forgive me but it is like telling Cuba that Fidel is the best thing that ever happened to them. It's like building back the wall in Germany. It's like George Washington handing the United States back to Britain. See how unfair and ludicrous it would be.
    Get your facts straight before you pass judgment on Honduras. There was no military coup because the president was not overthrown by the army. The army arrested a criminal and were humane enough to take him out of the country rather than have him rot in jail, which is what he deserves!
    Hondurans could not be happier that he is gone. I do not understand the international community. The fact that Fidel, Hugo Chaves, Ortega and all latin american communist leaders support Zelaya should be enough proof of the kind of person he is. Do you really want to hand our country over to Hugo Chaves in a silver plater , and with a greeting card from the UN to boot!

    July 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm |
  6. Lou Bouy

    Why did Obama keep his mouth shut on Iran, but was so quick to pounce on the Honduran coup? Makes you wonder what really is going on with his lack of logic in world order. If Honduras was a Muslim nation would he have kept his mouth shut? Just strange – really strange...

    July 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm |
  7. James Dylan

    It completely amazes me just how blind people are. First, it wasn't a military coup; unless you call the revolt of the presidents own party members and the election of his replacement by congress a military coup. And oh yeah, their plan for elections is still on schedule. Second, their supreme court just ruled that his aim at changing the constitution was illegal. So I call the militarys removal of the president an act of saving the democracy. Truly an inspiring event in which the military, here used only as a tool, never assumed control of the government and stopped an act which was obviously meant to put the country on the path of a dictatorship. And not only did our government not appluad but, actually condemed these heroic actions. What is going on around here? Have we lost our minds? Sure some people would have liked to see Bush dragged out but is his apparent poor Presidency enough to abandon everything, including what was great about our country?

    July 1, 2009 at 10:39 pm |
  8. David

    Hey CNN why are you covering this topic? You should continue to cover the Michael Jackson phenomenon for a few more weeks so your viewers will forget who voted for the Energy

    July 1, 2009 at 10:30 pm |
  9. David

    Why would President Obama vocally support a leftist president that has aligned with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador and Iran? Is our President a leftist too?

    July 1, 2009 at 10:04 pm |
  10. David

    Hey CNN why are you covering this topic? You should continue to cover the Michael Jackson phenomenon for a few more weeks so your viewers will forget who voted for the Energy Tax Tax Tax

    July 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm |
  11. David

    It wasn't a coup the military replaced a dictator with the top ranking congressman. The President, from what I understand, was acting outside of his constitutional authority and attempted to rig a referendum on the Constitution to secure a longer term. Flip flop the situation – the government in Iran stole the election and beat the protestors and killed many. Our President Obama has taken sides with the oppressors and not with democracy.

    July 1, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  12. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    Sounds like once again Obama's total lack of foreign policy expierience has set him and the US on the wrong path again.

    July 1, 2009 at 8:12 pm |
  13. CarlosVillela

    As a well infomed Honduran, I can tell you only that one day before the consultation the President changed per Decree the name of the consutation to a " Call for the Establishment of a National Constitutional Assembly", that there are more than enough fotos and videos showing Airplanes with the Venezuelan Flag bringing the ballots for the consultation, that the President insisted to carry out a consultation that was declared as Illegal by a Justice Tribunal and equally qualified as illegal by the Parliament, the Attorney General and the Honduran Omdbusman for Human Rigths Mr. Ramon Custodio ( a former Humanrights Activist that was persecuted in the 80s by the military). Additionally, the President had the legal instrument to consult the people on his intention to modify the Constitution if he wanted to .The Parliament approved a a Referendum Law a couple of days ago opening this possibility. But instead of following the legal channels, he insisted on proceeding to do a poll with no participation of the Electoral Supreme Court (body responsibly for organizing elections in Honduras), with no census, no control and no transparency at all. Coming from a family in which my father was persecuted by the Honduran military during his student years , there is nothing I hate more than military dictatorships and coup d’etat ( like probably the Mr. Custodio who was present at the election and sworn ceremony of the new President) but should one allow Presidents to disobey the laws? Should one allow the to open the door for a constitution to be changed in such an intransparent and unilateral way? If that all doesnt sound suspicious to you, than what should we call it? I dont like images of militaries in the streets but I also dont like the a President acting above the law

    July 1, 2009 at 7:47 pm |
  14. Hector Salgado (Berkeley, California)

    This is very much the classical and final argument of the rich and the powerful in Latin America to change democratically elected governments of the people. It happened all around Latin America in the 60's 70's and 80's and now they want to comeback to power with the same formula. If the international community and the Obama administration let the Honduran military get away with this only God knows what will happen later in other parts of Latin America where social tensions and economic and political inequalities of the 70' & 80's still exists. The conservative and right wing forces (allied with sectors of the Catholic Church and the military) don't see with good eyes the inevitable sea of political ans economic change taken place in Latin America. These changes are taking place and spearhead by the progressive and popular sectors of society, not by force or guerrilla warfare, but by exercising the democratic right to vote and electing its own representatives. Constitutional disputes and the type of government a country should have MUST be resolve by the people at the ballot box and not by military coups be these from the right or left.

    July 1, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
  15. Maria

    Yes Joe...Obama does want to sleep with the enemy. What does that tell you about our president?

    July 1, 2009 at 6:48 pm |
  16. Nan

    Obama is absolutely wrong in this Honduras issue. I have many many friends there and the former President tried to take over the country. The military simply did the will of the court when the Pres violated the laws of the country. So Obama is in favor of a President trying to become a dictator and stay in office for longer than constitutionally allowed? So what is Obama up to.....he will probably try to declare martial law before his term(s) is up. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

    He is "meddling" for sure this time, because he does not have all the facts. The people in Honduras exercised their rights, just like the people of Iran tried. But Obama demonstrated awkwardness, weakness, and incompetence while handling Iran, and now people are being hung, killed, beaten, and otherwise imprisoned since he would not gather a coalition of countries to tighten the noose of sanctions on Iran. He is now on the wrong side of Honduras, interfering with the adherence to the Honduran Constitution. Is he afraid we will want to adhere to ours.

    July 1, 2009 at 6:44 pm |
  17. Guillermo De La Vega Mahomar

    1. The event this morning should be taken as an arrest against a Honduran citizen, Manuel Zelaya, who broke the constitutional Honduran law in multiple occasions over the last few days.2. This SHOULD NOT be taken as a Coup d'état.3. The vast majority of Hondurans firmly oppose Manuel Zelaya and are in favor of his arrest.4. The current news being portrayed in international networks appear to be heavily tilted toward a contrarian view of most Hondurans. 5. The majority of Hondurans are not in favor of Manual Zelaya and are extremely proud of our congress and military for their stance in favor of democracy and peace.6. The events happening today were caused by an attempt by Manuel Zelaya to manipulate our country and its constitution to fulfill his ultimate goal of remaining in power indefinitely. 7. The world should be proud of Honduras as we are the first Latin-American country to stand against a tyrannical leader who has tried to topple democracy and peace in our country.8. Declarations made by Hugo Chavez should be discredited immediately. He should, as President Obama said, allow Hondurans to solve this issue through open communication following LEGAL processes.9. It is NOT ONLY in the interest of Honduras and its citizens that democracy prevails (supported by the events today and Manuel Zelaya’s arrest) but also in the interest of the UNITED STATES that no other countries align with Hugo Chavez (and his puppets) to build his empire against democracy and peace.10. In case Hugo Chavez tries to use military force in Honduras, we hope and pray we can count on the United States to stand along side Honduras in the fight against tyranny and oppression

    Written last Sunday by Jose Mahomar

    July 1, 2009 at 6:24 pm |
  18. Betty

    Why not can we leave to the people in Honduras to resolve by themselves their problems as we do with another countires?

    July 1, 2009 at 6:24 pm |
  19. Joe

    why would Oabama vocally support a leftist president that has aligned with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador?

    How is the US president actually defined his foreign policy? With due respect, does he want to sleep with then enemy on the "same bed"?

    July 1, 2009 at 6:08 pm |
  20. Monica Maldonado

    What kind of coup is this?? We don't have to restore democracy, we have a new president according to our current Constitution, the one of 1982. We'll have election on November 29th... a coup??? I don't think so.
    Our poverty and a lot of problems don't have solutions because of our Constitution, the problem is the pople we trust to govern Honduras in the best way.
    Our Constitution can be reform in the 98% of its articles, Manuel Zelaya wanted to get the reelection and that's a crime here.
    What he was doing was not a referendum. He didn't have the legal support to do what he wanted.
    I ask you to research Honduras legislation and you'll see he was breaking the law, and the best for all was getting him out of here.
    I live in Tegucigalpa and I'm very proud of my Country!

    July 1, 2009 at 5:48 pm |
  21. Viviannia Fleming

    I am an American citizen that has lived in Honduras for over thirty years – I don't understand what we pay our ambassadors and people on the ground internationally for, when they obviously never get it right – the last thing the US needs right now is Hugo Chavez on the border – and that is exactly where he will be if the US state department doesn't step up and speak up for Honduras – they have done what they could to rectify an unbearable situation, but they need support –

    July 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm |
  22. jim

    I think what is happening in Honduras is much like what is going on in Iran where they but since it's in Central America and not the Middle East it's ironically making much less of a buzz.

    July 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm |
  23. Waldo Moncada

    I am currently in Honduras and I have lived here for 36 years. I am well educated (Master´s in Finance at LSU), and I work in a multilateral organization.
    First of all, I believe that the current government in Honduras has enough legal proof to have decided to take the actions it did. Have you taken the trouble to interview someone from the opposing party? I see no sign of this in the article (objective views should consider both sides, I believe). Second, I will not argue that the way things were handled were not the best way to do so, but according to my interpretation: if two of the three branches of a government see the third as unfit to rule and they give instructions to arrest and remove a president backed by civil actions (the military did not act by themselves and they did not remain in power), and now the three branches of the government are working together, the situation is peaceful in the country, everyone is hard at work and the people did not lose any of their civil rights, could you call this a coupe?
    It is, in my opinion, irresponsible to state things such as: "It’s important to remember that underlying this crisis are institutional weaknesses and social tensions that have been chipping away at the foundation of democracy in Honduras for years." What weaknesses? what tensions? People are working in their offices and the economy is moving forward. Of course you will always have a small group of people in the opposition that will burn some tires and throw some rocks. But have you sent anyone down here to see that these are a group of 20 or 30 rioters and that 99% of the population is more focused on working and moving on? There really should be a little investigative reporting before posting articles like these.

    July 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm |
  24. Frank

    Coup or no Coup, What Mel Zelaya did was wrong. The Honduran People want no ties with Hugo Chavez and his ways of government. Zelaya is just one of his disciples and you all know that. You should really investigate more on Mel Zelaya before you promote that he be reinstated as president. He has committed 18 illicit acts that violate the constitution. PROVEN. Do your research.

    July 1, 2009 at 5:38 pm |
  25. Suyapa

    I am a Honduran citizen and am in complete support of the actions taken by Congress and our Supreme Court. Mr. Zelaya openly defied Congress, Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Commisioner for Human Rights, who had all ruled that the referendum he planned for June 28 was against our constitution. The Honduran constitution and our electoral law states that the referendum can only be called by the Electoral Tribunal. In summation he was openly defying constitutional and electoral law when he stated that no one was going to stop him from the referendum on Sunday. While he had been promoting the event as a survey, on Friday, two days before it was to be held, he published a decree in which he changed the intention of Sunday's event from a mere survey as he calls it to become a referendum to call the Constituent Assembly to rewrite our Constitution. By calling the Constituent Assembly he would have been able to overthrow our current constitution, dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court, all of which would have granted him absolute power to rewrite the Constitution and remain indefinitely in power. And to all of this is that the majority of the Honduran population rebelled against, we did not want to be governed by a dictator whose hidden agenda was to remain indefinitely in power, when our Constitution clearly prohibits reelection.The pajamas issue is just the unfortunate incident he is clinging to, to appear before the international community as the victim here.

    July 1, 2009 at 5:34 pm |
  26. Emily Moradel

    I write to you, a concerned Honduran citizen.
    The world's portrayal of what is happening in my country has been very polarized. So much so that I feel the need to clarify what is really occurring in Honduras. What occurred was not a coup, but the application of justice towards a person who continually violated the law despite the fact that he was cautioned by the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, Congress, the Human Rights Commission and the Honduran Armed Forces, on numerous occasions to desist from the illegal actions he was promoting.
    So finally, on a day when Mr. Zelaya Rosales and his entire cabinet were committing the aforementioned felony and after disregarding all due legal processes, the Armed Forces, with the support of Honduran Law, proceeded in detaining him.
    The international community does not know the fear and tension we hondurans have been living under. Mr. Zelaya, with his Chavez-like aspirations (Zelaya wants to become Honduras like a little Venezuela), has plunged this country into the worst political and economical crisis it has ever faced. Our freedom of speech and basic liberties were being threatened. He has plundered the treasury for his own political aspirations and he ignored the poor people he had sworn to protect.
    The international community gives us two very bleak choices: accept Zelaya and his new Venezuelan Constitution, or be cut off completely from the rest of the world and be threatened by Hugo Chavez. Do 5 million innocent people really deserve such a fate?
    So now I sign off, and I hesitate to use my real name because if Mel Zelaya returns to Honduras people like me, who voice their opinions, will be persecuted.

    Long Live Honduras! Long live Democracy!

    July 1, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  27. Tammy, Houma, LA

    Interesting. I just received an email from a fellow missionary worker who just returned from Honduras and said that the ousted president broke the law, the people wanted change, and the military did nothing wrong by taking back their country from a man who broke the law. The people spoke. My guess is these other countries (and the US) are just in fear that if the people can take a country by military force (not so unlike our founding fathers did to win freedom from England), then they may be in trouble if they do not do as the people like. Let freedom and democracy ring. And not the one set up by the UN and government hacks looking out for their own interests instead of the actual people. To understand and work in the poverty in Honduras, to realize that the poorest are considered less than human and not worthy of basic things like clean water and food and electricity and decent medical care is to understand and realize that the president who was ousted did not have the best interests of all his people at heart. Give the other side, please. This country and her amazing people need to be heard from all points of view, not just the one the Obama administration and UN would like the world to believe.

    July 1, 2009 at 5:25 pm |
  28. Kim

    A coup is a coup, unless it isn't a coup. The President, from what I understand, was acting outside of his constitutional authority and attempted to rig a referendum on the Constitution to secure a longer term. The people may be upset with their constitution, but I assume it has outlined procedures for amending and reform which should be adhered to so the rule of law is promoted. The pajamas are an unfortunately "sensational" detail that the media loves.

    July 1, 2009 at 4:54 pm |