2009 Honduran constitutional crisis

Coat of arms of Honduras.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis [1] [2] [3] was a political dispute over plans to rewrite the Constitution of Honduras. It began when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya planned to hold a poll on a referendum on a constituent assembly to change the constitution. A majority of the government, including the Supreme Court and prominent members of his own party, saw such plans as unconstitutional, [4] [5] as they could lead to presidential re-election, which is permanently outlawed by the Honduran constitution. [6] [7] The Honduran Supreme Court had upheld a lower court injunction against the 28 June poll. [8] However, the constitutional process for dealing with this situation was unclear; there were no clear procedures for removing or prosecuting a sitting president. The crisis culminated in the removal and exile of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduran military in a coup d'état.

On the morning of 28 June 2009, approximately 100 soldiers stormed the president's residence in Tegucigalpa and flew him to San José, Costa Rica, actions which he immediately called a " coup" upon his arrival there. [9] Later that day, the National Congress voted to remove Zelaya, having read without objection a letter of resignation that Zelaya says was forged. [10] Roberto Micheletti, the President of Congress and next in the presidential line of succession, was sworn in as Interim President. [11] [12] A "state of exception" suspending civil liberties was declared on 1 July by Micheletti's government [13] [14] and various curfews were imposed, some nationwide. [15] [16]

On 21 September 2009, Zelaya returned in secret to Honduras, after several attempts to return had been rebuffed. It was announced that he was in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. [17] The following day, the Honduras government suspended five constitutional rights for 45 days, [18] specifically: the personal liberty (Article 69), freedom of expression (Article 72), freedom of movement (Article 81), habeas corpus (Article 84) and freedom of association and assembly. [19] [20] The decree suspending human rights was officially revoked on 19 October 2009 in La Gaceta. [21]

International reaction to the 2009 Honduran crisis garnered widespread condemnation of the events as a coup d'état. [22] The United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), [23] and the European Union condemned the removal of Zelaya as a military coup, and some of these condemnations may still remain unretracted. The OAS rejected an attempt by Honduras to withdraw from the organisation [24] and then suspended Honduras the next day. [25] [26] Domestic opinion remains very much divided, and there have been demonstrations for and against Zelaya.

Efforts by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias [27] and the United States [28] [29] [30] to effect a diplomatic solution between Micheletti and Zelaya initially resulted in a proposal by President Arias calling for Zelaya's return to the presidency, albeit with curtailed powers. [31] Arias's proposal also stipulated political amnesty and advanced the Honduran general elections by a month, pushing them to take place in October. [32] In spite of US support for the (dubbed) San José Accord, negotiations ultimately broke down as the two parties were unwilling to come to any lasting agreement. [33] [34] [35] [36] Zelaya also insisted that he would not recognise the elections of 29 November as a precondition to returning to power. [37]

Honduran leaders refused to reinstate Zelaya before the elections, [38] [39] and international support for the elections remained scant leading up to the polls. [40] Many Hondurans sought to move past the crisis with the elections, which had been scheduled previous to Zelaya's ouster. [41] While Zelaya had urged abstention from the vote, initial returns indicated a larger than usual turnout, around 60%, [42] a figure which was subsequently revised downward to 49%. [43] Zelaya also disputed those figures at the time. [44] Some Honduran activists have ended daily protests demanding the reinstatement of Zelaya since he was ousted in a coup, saying they are moving on since Congress had voted to keep Manuel Zelaya out of office. [45]

The crisis drew to a close with the inauguration of the newly elected president, Porfirio Lobo, on 27 January 2010 and a deal to allow Zelaya to leave the Brazilian embassy into exile in the Dominican Republic. [46] [47]


Political and socioeconomic divide in Honduras

Two-thirds of Honduras citizens live below the poverty line, and unemployment is estimated at 28%. [48] It has one of Latin America's most unequal distributions of wealth: the poorest 10% of the population receives just 1.2% of the country's wealth, while the richest 10% collect 42%. [48] Approximately twenty per cent of the nation's GDP comes from remittances of workers from abroad. [48] The BBC describe the huge wealth gap in a poor country as one of the reasons why the relations between the president and the other institutions were so strained and that his leftward movement alarmed certain sectors. [49] Zelaya pushed for a referendum, insisting that Honduras' grinding poverty stemmed from a constitution – written in 1982 at the height of that country's brutal repression of leftists – that rigs the game for the most powerful families and interests. [50]

Zelaya supporters, largely from labour unions and the poor, claim conservative business leaders are actually concerned because Zelaya had sharply increased the minimum wage. Víctor Meza, formerly Zelaya's interior minister, stated that: "The impression that stuck with the traditional political class and with the most conservative business leaders of the country was that Zelaya had taken a dangerous turn to the left, and therefore that their interests were in jeopardy." "We underestimated the conservatism of the Honduran political class and the military leadership." [51] According to John Donaghy, of Caritas, the real conflict in Honduras is between the poor and wealthy: "It's a system that has kept the poor down for years." [52] To some members of Honduras's small upper class, Zelaya was ousted because of his blossoming leftist alliance with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela which they recognised as a threat to their interests. To the working-class, it appears Zelaya was ousted because the elite felt threatened by his efforts to improve their lives – most notably with a 60% increase in the minimum wage to about US$9.60 a day from about $6 a day. Some who protested in support of Zelaya had never voted for him. [53]

Zelaya presidency

Manuel Zelaya, a businessman born into a wealthy Honduran family, [54] was elected in 2005 as the candidate of the country's historically powerful Liberal Party. [55] Since taking office, Zelaya's economic and social policies earned him praise from labour unions and civil society groups, [55] but alienated him from parts of his own party. [56] which were particularly upset by Zelaya's forging a regional alliance with the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), established by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other leaders in Latin America as a counter to the trade and security policies sponsored by the United States. [55] Zelaya also planned to convert the Soto Cano Air Base ("Palmerola"), where one of the three United States Southern Command Task Forces is located, into a civilian airport (it is already in use for many civilian flights because of safety concerns about Toncontín International Airport), [57] partly using financing from ALBA and Petrocaribe. [58] [59] The New York Times reported that much of Zelaya's support was derived from labour unions and the nation's poor, while the middle and upper class feared Zelaya was seeking to establish Hugo Chávez's type of socialist populism with a powerful leader in the country. [60]

Zelaya's government was accused of harassing journalists [61] [62] and also accused by The Organization of American States (OAS) of imposing "subtle censorship" in Honduras. [63]

According to The Economist, "Mr. Zelaya's presidency has been marked by a rise in crime, corruption scandals and economic populism." [56] By April 2009, a Mitofsky opinion poll showed that, of those consulted, only one in four respondents approved of Zelaya – the lowest approval rating of 18 regional leaders. [64]

Alliance with ALBA

On 22 July 2008, Zelaya revealed that he was seeking to incorporate the country into the ALBA, an organisation founded by Hugo Chávez. In fact, he said that the country had been an "observer member" "four or more months". [65] The Associated Press, citing Manuel Orozco of the Inter American Dialogue, said that "His [Zelaya's] campaign for changing the constitution has energized his support base of labour groups, farmers and civil organisations who have long felt marginalized in a country where a wealthy elite controls the media and much of politics."[ citation needed]

The Honduran right opposed the ALBA alliance, and were concerned that Zelaya would move to eliminate his term limit as had other ALBA leaders, whom they considered would-be dictators. According to National Party analyst Raul Pineda Alvarado, Zelaya's attempt to modify constitution was a "carbon copy" of what has happened in Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua. [66] US Republican Newt Gingrich wrote in the Washington Examiner that Chavez had used ALBA to create "a tide of incipient dictatorship" flowing out of Venezuela into other countries in Latin America. He noted that Chavez had subverted democracy in Venezuela to ensure his rule will be uncontested for decades, and "one-by-one, each of the members of ALBA have followed Chavez's lead and changed their constitutions to remove limits on the number of terms their presidents can serve." [67] However, the notion of extending term limits in Latin America is not unique to ALBA countries, as efforts in Colombia have been made towards allowing President Álvaro Uribe to seek re-election. [68]