The op-ed for Forbes is up.
I co-authored it with Steve Haber of Stanford University. When I say we co-authored, I really mean co-authored: Steve and I write by continuously tossing ideas past each other, dissecting them to death (and usually rejecting them) scribbling and re-scribbling versions, reading out loud to each other, and then finally finishing. It's a lot of fun.
The more expanded analysis is below the fold. It takes into account some (surprisingly heated!) discussions with colleagues, Steven Taylor's blogging, and several of the comments on this blog. I don't think I'll be dropping this issue anytime soon, so more comments and questions are highly welcome.
Zelaya’s ouster was legal. Zelaya broke the constitution by insisting on a referendum. The legal logic is simple. Article 5 prohibits consultative referenda that would change Article 374. Article 374 prohibits any change to Article 373. Article 373 states that the only way to change the Constitution is to have Congress pass an amendment twice by a 2/3rds vote. Zelaya’s referendum called for a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution, which means changing Article 373, which can only be done by changing Article 374, which in turn violates Article 5.
Article 313, in turn, gives the Supreme Court the right to arrest the president and bring him to trial if he commits a crime. Violating an order of the Supreme Court is, by definition, a crime. Zelaya refused an order to desist with the referendum. He disobeyed that, going so far as have supporters break into a warehouse where the ballots were stored. A Supreme Court justice, therefore, issued an arrest warrant on June 26th and ordered the military to carry it out.
Zelaya’s expulsion was illegal. According to the New York Times, the military team charged with arresting the President decided at the last minute to bundle him off to Costa Rica instead of holding him under house arrest. Zelaya should have been suspended from the presidency and detained pending trial by the Supreme Court. There are no provisions for banishment in the Honduran constitutiton, and even if Congress decided to institute it as a penalty, it could not be applied without due process.
Zelaya’s ouster was a mistake. The Supreme Court and the military made three miscalculations. First, the Supreme Court overestimated the threat from Zelaya’s referendum. They had already pronounced it unconstitutional and the state had withdrawn most of its support. The referendum, therefore, would have been a mess, dependent on volunteers, covering only part of the country. It seems unlikely in the extreme that it would have added to Zelaya’s prestige, even had it passed. In fact, a case can be made that the referendum would have been so disorganized that Zelaya’s opposition could have used it to further paint him as an authoritarian.
It would have taken an unprecedented electoral earthquake for another self-proclaimed radical Bolivarian to win the upcoming November election. The Liberal Party primary in December 2008 elected Elvin Santos as the nominee — and Santos had angrily resigned as Zelaya’s veep in protest against his policies. Meanwhile, the chief opposition comes from Porfirio Lobo, the candidate of the conservative National Party. A mismanaged, badly-organized, and illegitimate referendum was unlikely to produce such an earthquake.
That said, I understand why the Supreme Court decided to enforce the letter of the law. They waited until it became absolutely clear that Zelaya would defy the court’s order — in the two days before his arrest, Zelaya declared he had no intention of obeying the court and had supporters break into sealed warehouses. That said, the Supreme Court had no duty to order Zelaya’s arrest. They could have punted and let him sink himself by holding a wreck of a referendum.
Zelaya’s expulsion was a bigger (but more understandable) mistake. The Army worried that if they simply held Zelaya under house arrest, his presence could serve as a lightning rod for the opposition. The best historical example of what the Army probably had in mind would be Juan Perón in 1945. The Argentine government arrested Perón on October 9th — the subsequent mass demonstrations provoked when Perón addressed the public from jail (and organized by his wife) forced the government to release him on October 17th. The Honduran Army had no desire to give Zelaya any chance to emulate Perón and mobilize the street. They calculated that if they whisked Zelaya out of the country, he would be unable to organize an effective opposition and go quietly into that vast night. A good historical parallel would be Mexico in 1936. When Lázaro Cárdenas packed El Jefe Máximo Plutarco Calles off to Los Angeles, that was the end of Calles’s ability to organize against the Mexican government.
The problem is obvious. It isn’t 1936 or 1945; it’s 2009. Modern communications and the platform provided by the OAS and U.N. mean that Zelaya doesn’t need to be in the country to organize opposition. All he needs to do is show up on television at the United Nations. Meanwhile, there is no effective way in a country as open as Honduras to prevent Hondurans from receiving his messages. The fact that the new government appears to be (quite constitutionally, I have to add) in the process of declaring a state of emergency is a sign that bundling Zelaya off is not having the desired effect of limiting the ability of Zelayistas to mobilize. The streets mobilized despite his expulsion, leaving the new Honduran government with a worst of all worlds: the expulsion has undercut its legitimacy and prompted international opprobrium, while the domestic opposition is proceeding regardless. That’s why the interim government has begun to suspend civil liberties.
The Honduran constitution, I have to add, allows Congress to temporarily suspend such liberties. Thus far, the only legal breach appears to have been Zelaya’s expulsion.
International opposition was inevitable. The elected presidents of countries like Brazil and Mexico could not afford to let Hugo Chávez get out in front of the Honduran issue, given the optics of shoving the President into an airplane and exiling him. They have leftist constituents at home, and they want to keep Chávez looking as illegitimate and silly as possible in the eyes of those constituents. Opposing the coup for them is good domestic politics. The presidents of other countries, like Chile and Panama, probably don’t have to worry about Chavista sentiment within their electorates, but considering the history of both places it was unlikely in the extreme that their leaders would stop to parse the legal fine print. They look at the situation and think “Pinochet!” or “Noriega!” I find that completely understandable.
In addition, the leaders of much of Latin America have foreign policy reasons to undercut the Bolivarian Republic. So far, Chávez’s meddling has been rather confused, but he retains the capacity to cause trouble … and with the possibility of oil prices going back up in the next few years, that capacity runs a strong risk of growing. Hugo wasn’t going to invade Honduras from Nicaragua or anything like that (much as I suspect that he would like to be able to do that) but it is good foreign policy to keep his Bolivarian Alternative from gaining legitimacy as the hemisphere’s voice of democracy.
It is pretty clear that Acting President Roberto Micheletti didn’t expect the international opposition. Thus the ham-handed declarations that Zelaya had “resigned” or was involved with drugs. The declarations were so ham-fisted that they wound up making the government look illegitimate, even though Zelaya’s removal and Micheletti’s appointment have taken place within the Constitution.
Barack Obama is very good at realpolitik. The Administration got out in front of hemispheric opinion, isolated Hugo Chávez, and bolstered the prestige of the presidents of Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. At the same time, they’ve left the door open to a negotiated solution, and refrained from using hard sanctions. U.S. aid to Honduras makes up only 4% of the Honduran government budget, and the military aid that’s been suspended makes up only 4% of that 4%. Meanwhile, it will take a long time for the suspension of new World Bank loans to effect the situation on the ground — nobody in Honduras is being thrown out of work because a bridge-building project is being discontinued. Now, the United States could reinstall Zelaya whenever it wanted to by imposing serious trade sanctions (or threatening to invade) but those actions would run the risk of wrecking the Honduran economy and prompting a civil war when angry unemployed people took to the streets. In short, the Administration is pursuing a supremely cynical policy in the guise of idealism, one designed to bolster the interests of the United States and its citizens.
Suspending Honduras from the OAS is an effective sanction. The economic sanctions so far have been small beer. The border closings by the neighbors are the most serious. How long can the neighbors keep the border closed? Honduran imports from the rest of Central America are valued around 10 percent of its GDP, which is high — but none of them are irreplaceable. In fact, exporters in the rest of the Isthmus are already complaining to their governments. Conversely, Honduran exports to the rest of Central America come to about 4 percent of GDP. That is a hit (although new markets can be found for some of the exports) but Micheletti would need to conclude that their economic impact would swing more votes to the National Party than would allowing Zelaya back in.
In fact, stronger sanctions could backfire in two ways. One, they could box the Liberals into a corner. Voters generally don’t like weak governments, and it looks weak to back down in the face of economic pressure. Two, if strong enough they could cause the government to collapse, as unemployed people take to the streets. This is why sanctions are often ineffective, and, I would argue, more so against electoral democracies ... which Honduras still is, even with the events of the past week.
Nevertheless, international opposition is a powerful tool. It acts via three mechanisms. The first is that denouncing the government at the U.N. and suspending it from the OAS delegitimizes the government. Delegitimization will create problems for the Liberal Party, which so far has completely “owned” the coup. That will cost them votes. It also bolsters the Zelayistas and contributes to the aura of instability, further giving the government an incentive to compromise. Finally, delegitimization increases investor perceptions of risk, which drives up bond spreads and makes Honduras’s debt more costly to service. That latter is a sanction, but one that governments can take into account without seeming as weak, simply because they aren’t caving to a personalized outsider but an impersonal economic force.
The Honduran government will probably hang on. All Micheletti needs to do is run out the clock until November’s election. The chances of a Bolivarian resurgence are fairly low. The seemingly symbolic sanction of suspending the seat at the OAS does in fact impose pain on the Honduran government, but it probably doesn’t impose enough pain to prompt Acting President Roberto Micheletti to reinstate Zelaya. The only thing that could do that would be a street rebellion inside Honduras — the Honduran security forces are less than a tenth of Iran’s relative to the size of the population, and far less ideologically motivated. So far, however, a full-scale people power protest seems unlikely.
Micheletti might agree to allow Zelaya to return if the elections are accelerated. Congress could change the date of the election, which the Constitution doesn’t specify. All the Constitution specifies is that the president will be inaugurated in January after the election and serve no more than four years. If Micheletti thinks that the Liberals have a better shot at an early election than they do from toughing it out to November, then they could allow Zelaya back. Otherwise, it would take a resurgence of street violence, which thus far looks unlikely.