Friday, October 23, 2009

Liberals, conservatives, and Honduras

Abraham Lowenthal, a political scientist and long-time observer of U.S.-Latin American relations who is now at the University of Southern California, has a thought-provoking op-ed in the L.A. Times. His argument is that both liberals and conservatives in the United States have made the situation worse in Honduras, and have done so multiple times in the past as well:

What brings Honduras, and Central America more generally, back again and again to center stage in Washington debates on Latin America is not the strategic, security or economic importance of the region to the United States. On the contrary, it is precisely the minimal tangible significance of Central America to the United States in economic, political and military terms that allows U.S. policymakers of conflicting tendencies to indulge in grandstanding in framing policies toward that nearby and vulnerable region.

True enough. Where I disagree, however, is here:

Liberal activists inside and outside the Obama administration jumped at the opportunity to align the U.S. government against the forcible overthrow and deportation of President Manuel Zelaya. Many did so without knowing or caring much about Zelaya's erratic qualities, his interest in trying to prolong his term despite the Honduran constitutional ban on reelection or the considerable sentiment against him in the Honduran legislative and judicial branches.

One argument I've made over these past few months is that it doesn't matter if Zelaya was unpopular. We should not ever go down a slippery slope of justifying a coup just because a president was unpopular.

Overall, though, he has a good point. One reason why this crisis has been so prolonged is that people like Jim DeMint have given the coup government the confidence not to negotiate.

Days since the coup: 117
Days until the scheduled presidential election: 37


Anonymous,  8:45 AM  

Lowenthal makes an excellent and true point, but he muddles it a bit by talking of the 'sentiment' against him by the other branches of government. That's really not the problem. The problem is that practically all of Honduras other legitimate institutions (Congress, the Supreme Court, Electoral Tribunal, Attorney General) have pronounced themselves against Zelaya's actions and/or demand his arrest.

This is what 'liberals' have repeatedly failed to accept, that there are other legitimate institutions in Honduras.

The crisis in Honduras has become practically a textbook example of confirmation bias for both sides.

John (Juancito) Donaghy 3:09 PM  

One problem is the relationship in Honduras among the various branches of government. As I understand it, the Supreme Court, the Electoral Tribunal, and even possibly the Attorney General's office are appointed by Congress, though the president can make suggestions. Thus there were major conflicts between Congress and the President when the appointments were to be made earlier this year. Thus, I believe, it is hard to see any independence of the judiciary, the electoral tribunal, and the Fiscal offices. There were also some questions about the legitimacy of the candidates to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
If I am wrong in this, I would appreciate being corrected.

Nell 3:33 PM  

An important and principled point, but in this case Lowenthal's doubly wrong, because Zelaya is actually popular, as demonstrated by both the earlier, ignored COIMER & OP survey and a just-released poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (link above).

The GQR survey, done Oct. 9-13, also shows majority support for constitutional reform as a solution to the crisis (as opposed to the November elections). Maybe this will get a bit more media and pundit attention? I'm not holding my breath.

Nell 3:44 PM  

John D. is correct. The lack of separation of powers and independence of the branches of government is one of the reasons why constitutional reform is needed.

The Congress flouts laws with impunity. The members of the election tribunal (who just traveled here as part of the pro-coup propaganda effort being paid for with Honduran public funds) were named in blatant violation of Honduras' election law, which bars current election officials from serving on the TSE (see comments here for documenting links). But who is going to hold the Congress to account? Apparently not the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by Congress.

Nor are the members of Congress accountable to the citizens of the departments they supposedly represent. They owe their allegiance to the party bosses and presidential candidates who put together the slates in the primary elections.

Anonymous,  3:55 PM  

What outsiders think about Honduras institutions is irrelevant to them. The US picks its president through an Electoral College, seen as undemocratic in many parts of the world and even the US. Doesn't change the fact that Bush was President.

How the Supreme Court or the Electoral Tribunal are appointed is of no relevance to Lowenthal's point. That fact remains they are legitimate institutions and liberals ignore this fact.

Nell 5:22 PM  

Opponents of the coup don't base their arguments on the illegitimacy of the institutions that took part in the coup, but on the illegality and unconstitutionality of their actions. (The blatantly political character of the courts and the repeated law-flouting behavior of the Congress are arguments in favor of constitutional reform to make the judiciary more independent and the elected branches more accountable to voters.)

The efforts of coup apologists to shoehorn those actions overthrowing an elected government (that would have left power within seven months in any case) into some kind of legal and constitutional framework have been refuted repeatedly. The latest refutation, to the shoddy and selective partisan work by one staffer at the Law Library of the Library of Congress, just appeared in Forbes.

Nell 5:28 PM  

Lowenthal's piece is in fundamental support of the coup. It's another in a long line of commentary in which support for right-wing positions poses as "centrist" because of its supposed criticism of left and right alike.

Lowenthal's preferred policy outcome is no different from Jim DeMint's. His characterization of the elected government of Honduras and its most active supporters as "clients" of U.S. opponents of the coup is both wrong and offensive.

Anonymous,  5:54 PM  


Thanks for proving my point.

Nell 12:36 PM  


Two months ago, you posted this:

Mel Zelaya sought to include a question in a national vote about whether Honduran voters wanted to form a commission to discuss the reform of the constitution. We know that a majority was against the idea, and so he certainly would have lost. [emphasis added]

I'm assuming you were basing that on some published poll numbers, but couldn't find any other reference to them. Could you point us to those?

In light of the results of the recent poll released yesterday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner showing a 54% majority in favor of constitutional reform, it would be interesting to compare the earlier (May? June? July?) and latest polls -- to the extent possible.

Nell 12:41 PM  

To clarify my original comment yesterday, the point I was characterizing as 'important and principled' was not Lowenthals's but Greg's, i.e. that opposition to the overthrow of elected governments should be consistent and not based on the politics of the situation.

Every government in the hemisphere is at greater risk if this coup is allowed to stand.

Justin Delacour 3:27 PM  

Opponents of the coup don't base their arguments on the illegitimacy of the institutions that took part in the coup, but on the illegality and unconstitutionality of their actions.

Right, this is something that people like Gabriel invariably fail to understand. They fail to understand that the law itself is an institution and that it has been flagrantly violated by both the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court.

RAJ 9:08 PM  

The institution of Honduran government that is legally authorized to consider whether a high government official had committed a crime so serious as to merit removal from office, the Supreme Court, had not completed the required process on June 28. So the first elision in the coup apologists' argument is to take the outcome of a legal process for granted. What Congress did June 28 is, by every legal analysis-- and they just keep growing-- illegal. The Public Prosecutor (not the Attorney General) had brought charges to the Supreme Court, but those were never judged nor decided. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal neither called for President Zelaya's arrest-- which would be illegal for it-- nor declared in general about his actions, but rather, declined to be responsible for the poll he proposed. These are all different issues, and the imprecise collapse together of different issues is another hallmark of pro-coup apology.

But beyond these errors of fact, in the event that the Congress or Court, or the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, reached a decision or took an action that was legal, analysts would still not be required to accept that action was automatically just. If a Honduran-- or US-- institution acts in a way that is unjust, it is both a political right and an academic necessity to identify what is unjust and depending on the nature of the injustice, actions against the legitimate government that it might rule illegal may be the only remedy.

Anonymous's insistence that everyone needs to accept any way that a government process comes out-- in Honduras, in the US, in Myanmar, presumably-- is false. It would make a good basis for supporting authoritarian forms of government, but not democratic forms.

It is legitimate for John Donaghy and Nell to point out, as do many of us, that Honduran governmental institutions are composed in ways that concentrate power and limit accountability. The appointments of the current Supreme Court and TSE were marred by political manipulation and violations of the letter and spirit of the law. Observations of this sort are part of the process of starting political action to change things-- in Honduras as in the US, as in, for example, Myanmar.

The means available to a people to achieve change from corrupt government to accountable government are often the target of repressive measures by the government itself. Anonymous's argument would bar all forms of civil disobedience, which historically have produced greater civil rights in the US and elsewhere, not to mention that this standard would make the insurrections through which democracies like that of the US were founded all illegitimate.

There is a failure of historical vision in this insistence that whatever the current Honduran government does must be accepted. This institutionalist bias has been critiqued in many of the legal analyses of the Honduran constitutional issues, which question the attempt by its framers to seal the constitution off from change by the sovereign people.

If I have to choose between support for the sovereign people and support for an illegally conformed government agency, I am entirely comfortable choosing the former. It is a choice for popular participatory government, and that is what is happening in Honduras.

Anonymous,  10:10 PM  

If I have to choose between support for the sovereign people and support for an illegally conformed government agency, I am entirely comfortable choosing the former.

Ah yes, RAJ shows up with her novel legal theories once more. It's probably a step forward though. Legal theories have to rival crit lit for its 'unverifiable blather quotient' so you are safe. Let's not forget that when you ventured into areas that require actual knowledge, like how polls are carried out in Latin America, you didn't do so well.

Maybe the Hondurans should get rid of Congress and the Supreme Court and replace them with bloggers and pol sci students. You guys are cheaper and are sooo convinced you know better!

The good news is that no one with any real power appears to be listening to anything you say, and the Honduran government appears firm in its decision to not let the crazy Zelaya destroy the country. The bad news is that some parent somewhere is paying tuition for you to teach their children. Hopefully you don't sell them this silliness, no?

By the way "support for the sovereign people'? That's like out of a Monty Python sketch, no?

Nell 12:59 PM  

"support for the sovereign people'? That's like out of a Monty Python sketch

Very revealing from someone who claims to revere the Honduran constitution, mocking what it proclaims one of it its most fundamental principles, and that of any democracy: that the people are sovereign.

ARTICULO 2.- La Soberanía corresponde al Pueblo del cual emanan todos los Poderes del Estado que se ejercen por representación.

La soberanía del Pueblo podrá también ejercerse de manera directa, a través del Plebiscito y el Referendo.

La suplantación de la Soberanía Popular y la usurpación de los poderes constituidos se tipifican como delitos de Traición a la Patria. ...

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