Opinion

A 'coup' in Honduras? Nonsense.

Don't believe the myth. The arrest of President Zelaya represents the triumph of the rule of law.

By

Sometimes, the whole world prefers a lie to the truth. The White House, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and much of the media have condemned the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya this past weekend as a coup d'état.

That is nonsense.

In fact, what happened here is nothing short of the triumph of the rule of law.

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To understand recent events, you have to know a bit about Honduras's constitutional history. In 1982, my country adopted a new Constitution that enabled our orderly return to democracy after years of military rule. After more than a dozen previous constitutions, the current Constitution, at 27 years old, has endured the longest.

It has endured because it responds and adapts to changing political conditions: Of its original 379 articles, seven have been completely or partially repealed, 18 have been interpreted, and 121 have been reformed.

It also includes seven articles that cannot be repealed or amended because they address issues that are critical for us. Those unchangeable articles include the form of government; the extent of our borders; the number of years of the presidential term; two prohibitions – one with respect to reelection of presidents, the other concerning eligibility for the presidency; and one article that penalizes the abrogation of the Constitution.

During these 27 years, Honduras has dealt with its problems within the rule of law. Every successful democratic country has lived through similar periods of trial and error until they were able to forge legal frameworks that adapt to their reality. France crafted more than a dozen constitutions between 1789 and the adoption of the current one in 1958. The US Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789. And the British – pragmatic as they are – in 900 years have made so many changes that they have never bothered to compile their Constitution into a single body of law.

Under our Constitution, what happened in Honduras this past Sunday? Soldiers arrested and sent out of the country a Honduran citizen who, the day before, through his own actions had stripped himself of the presidency.

These are the facts: On June 26, President Zelaya issued a decree ordering all government employees to take part in the "Public Opinion Poll to convene a National Constitutional Assembly." In doing so, Zelaya triggered a constitutional provision that automatically removed him from office.

Constitutional assemblies are convened to write new constitutions. When Zelaya published that decree to initiate an "opinion poll" about the possibility of convening a national assembly, he contravened the unchangeable articles of the Constitution that deal with the prohibition of reelecting a president and of extending his term. His actions showed intent.

Our Constitution takes such intent seriously. According to Article 239: "No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [emphasis added], as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years."

Notice that the article speaks about intent and that it also says "immediately" – as in "instant," as in "no trial required," as in "no impeachment needed."

Continuismo – the tendency of heads of state to extend their rule indefinitely – has been the lifeblood of Latin America's authoritarian tradition. The Constitution's provision of instant sanction might sound draconian, but every Latin American democrat knows how much of a threat to our fragile democracies continuismo presents. In Latin America, chiefs of state have often been above the law. The instant sanction of the supreme law has successfully prevented the possibility of a new Honduran continuismo.

The Supreme Court and the attorney general ordered Zelaya's arrest for disobeying several court orders compelling him to obey the Constitution. He was detained and taken to Costa Rica. Why? Congress needed time to convene and remove him from office. With him inside the country that would have been impossible. This decision was taken by the 123 (of the 128) members of Congress present that day.

Don't believe the coup myth. The Honduran military acted entirely within the bounds of the Constitution. The military gained nothing but the respect of the nation by its actions.

I am extremely proud of my compatriots. Finally, we have decided to stand up and become a country of laws, not men. From now on, here in Honduras, no one will be above the law.

Octavio Sánchez, a lawyer, is a former presidential adviser (2002-05) and minister of culture (2005-06) of the Republic of Honduras.

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