On the Honduran Coup

The events in Honduras today have been some of the more dramatic in recent Latin American (and especially Central American) politics. The events are certainly of relevance to the democratic evolution of Honduras. Dave Schuler asked that I post a few comments given my academic focus on Latin America.

If anyone is interested in the topic, I have written quite a bit about it today:

I think it is also worth noting that many are forming opinions simply based on the fact that ousted President Zelaya was a political ally of Hugo Chávez, but that fact is irrelevant to whether or not the actions taken by members of the Honduran government and military were legal. I do concur that Zelaya’s proposed plebiscite was unconstitutional and that he was violating a Supreme Court ruling in pursuing it. As such, I agree that action was warranted against Zelaya, but that doesn’t affect the fact that what was undertaken in Honduras was a coup, albeit a bloodless one.

Democracies are not made healthier by extra-legal moves even if they are made to block other extra-legal moves. Indeed, the inability of the congress and the courts to find an alternative means of blocking Zelaya’s plebiscite apart from arrest and exile underscores institutional weakness, not strength.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Latin America, Law and the Courts, Supreme Court, US Constitution, , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. DL says:

    Sometimes democracys need to employ pragmatic responses because the legal/political systems can be so often corrupted – as in Roe v Wade?

    A coup is so much cleaner and less bloody than a revolution.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Whats to agree? Their constitution cannot be amended by plebiscite and the constitution limited the term the president could serve. Their supreme court said no and they enforced it. Looks to me like a good blueprint for future use.

  3. “coup” implies the government was overthrown. The government of Honduras is still standing; it was a single man who was removed.

  4. DL: less bloody than a revolution, but still illegal.

    Zelsdorf: so, when one part of the government is behaving illegally, the solution should be for other parts of the government to also behave illegally?

    Stormy: a coup is an extralegal method of transferring power that does not require the total destruction or replacement of a sitting government. Zelaya was taken from the presidency by force in an illegal fashion and Micheletti installed via that process. Its a coup. It was bloodless, it was less dramatic than many have been, but it was a coup.

    If Obama were ousted taken from the White House and exiled to Canada and Speaker Pelosi was sworn in as President, and yet the rest of the government was still in place, that would be a coup.

  5. If we acknowledge that the Honduran democracy was rather weak, does that mean they should give it up, rather than take unappealing steps that many there feel were necessary to save it? I don’t think this rises to the level of having to destroy their democracy in order to save it.

    The perfect remains the enemy of the good.

  6. Charles,

    If you are directing your comment at me (and I am not sure if you are) my point is that an extralegal removal of a president will likely have a long-term and damaging effect on Honduran democracy. There is no evidence to suggest that the option here were a) a coup or b) lose democracy.

  7. Zelaya was taken from the presidency by force in an illegal fashion and Micheletti installed via that process

    It wasn’t illegal. The Honduran military is responsible for elections. Zelaya was illegally interfering with elections. The military was ordered to arrest him. They arrested him.

    You may not like that particular setup (and indeed, having the military involved in law enforcement is a bad idea), but that doesn’t make it necessarily illegal.

  8. There is absolutely no constitutional power given to the Supreme Court, et al., to do what they did–there really is no debate to be had on that point. Even if one fully supports what was done, one has to at least face up to what the action was.

    It it not any different than if the US Supreme Court ordered the arrest and exile of the POTUS. They don’t have that power and it would be an illegal act.

  9. Al Bullock says:

    Keeping the “free” free! One look at Venezuela and Bolivia and the action which forced the President into exile is tantamount to control of the Government. A wrong to right a wrong? A fair judgement

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    If Obama were ousted taken from the White House and exiled to Canada and Speaker Pelosi was sworn in as President, and yet the rest of the government was still in place, that would be a coup.

    Damn thats a scary thought……..

  11. Franklin says:

    I agree with G.A. for once. Even as a slightly left-leaning moderate, Pelosi scares the crap out of me. Heck, Reid does, too.

  12. I wasn’t really directing that comment at anyone, because I don’t know what the right answer is. It’s a choice between several bad alternatives. But I am shocked (do not read any irony into this) at how quickly President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have jumped on Honduras considering their dithering on Iran. Being on the side of Chavez and Castro when Chavez is threatening military action should give anyone pause.

  13. The thing is that I think a lot of people are getting too wrapped up in a) Chavez/Castro and/or b) what Obama said or didn’t say and aren’t evaluating the situation for what it is.

    I would submit that Chavez is a side issue at best and the constitutionality of the event has nothing whatsoever as to what Obama said or didn’t say.

    All I would like to see people do is evaluate what happened apart from whether Hugo Chavez or Barack Obama liked it or not.

  14. As President Zelaya was taking extra-constitutional means to try and effectively destroy Honduras’ democracy, I’m inclined to be a little more lenient towards the actions of the Honduran judiciary and legislative branches of the their government and the military’s execution of their orders in this instance.

  15. FYI: I have found and posted the exact language of the referendum here. While I agree that he was acting in contradiction to a Supreme Court order, should have stopped, and deserved legal action against him, it is difficult to look at the language and question and reach the conclusion that he was trying to “effectively destroy Honduras’ democracy.”

    Beyond that, and this is the key point I keep trying to make: the extra-legal removal of an elected president isn’t the best way to preserve democracy.