Sunday's coup in Honduras has been portrayed as a throwback to the bad old days when Latin American armies got drafted in as the ultimate umpires of political conflict. But in arresting president Manuel Zelaya in his pajamas and putting him on the first plane out of the country, Honduras's generals were acting out of fear of a genuine and growing threat to Latin Democracy: the looming prospect of unchecked, hyper-empowered executive power held for life by a single, charismatic individual.
Seen in context, Sunday's military powerplay was different in important ways from the traditional Latin American putsch. The generals move came at the unanimous—yes unanimous—behest of a congress outraged by Zelaya's not-particularly-subtle attempts to extend his hold on power indefinitely. It followed a series of clearly unconstitutional moves on Zelaya's part, including his attempt to unilaterally remove the chief of the army, which, according to Honduras's Constitution, can only be done by a congressional super-majority.
And congress's request had been seconded by the nation's Supreme Court, which is sworn to uphold a constitution that explicitly makes the act of "inciting, promoting or backing the continuation in power or re-election of the President of the Republic" punishable with the loss of Honduran citizenship.
So while we wince at the image of soldiers kidnapping a president, it's important to recognize that the move against Zelaya was, if not strictly speaking constitutional, certainly institutional.
If anything, the hemisphere's unanimous, outraged reaction to events in Tegucigalpa—which, for once, saw Washington and Caracas in strong agreement against the coup—underlines the region's pathologically imbalanced veneration of presidential power. After all, in 1999, when Hugo Chávez, with the agreement of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, moved to shut down Venezuela's democratically elected congress, we heard nary a peep from the OAS. And in 2007, when Ecuador's own neoauthoritarian president Rafael Correa moved to shut down congress with the Supreme Court's approval, nobody cried coup. In neither case were those closures allowed by the existing constitution, yet nobody would've taken cries of a "coup" seriously.
Somehow, though, when the Honduran Congress, with the support of the Supreme Court, moves against the president, the continent's foreign affairs ministries fly into deep crisis mode.
This underscores a harsh reality for Latin American believers in liberal constitutionalism. Deep down, only Presidential Power is considered real power in Latin America, which is why only moves against the president are considered actual coups. Our constitutions generally define all branches of government as equal, but it seems some are more equal than others.
It's precisely because such attitudes are so widespread in the region that Honduras's political class panicked when faced with a president determined to make his power permanent. And while it's true that, in their reaction, the generals stepped beyond constitutional boundries, the hard line the Obama administration has taken against the Honduran coupsters needs to be balanced with a realistic assessment of where the deeper threat to Latin democracy comes from these days.
Under Fidel Castro's iconic shadow and Hugo Chávez's day-to-day leadership, a new generation of authoritarian leftists has mounted a concerted campaign against the kinds of constitutional checks and balances that make liberal democracy viable. Honduras's political class grasped clearly that to allow Zelaya's charisma to trump the nation's explicit constitutional ban on presidential continuismo would be to open the door to the kind of institutional involution that Venezuela and Bolivia have experienced, with a hyperempowered executive gradually eating away at the other branch's prerogatives until nothing of the Republic is left.
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