The official position of the Obama administration casts the removal of Manuel Zelaya from office in Honduras as an illegal coup d’etat, and almost every other nation in the region has lined up with the US — or more accurately, we have lined up with them. The Hugo Chavez protege has used this international support to demand a return to his office, and the US has ratcheted up the pressure by canceling visa services and suspending aid to the poor nation, which had been until now a fairly reliable friend in Latin America. Even with Zelaya spewing paranoid rantings about Israeli mercenaries and mind rays, the Obama administration has not budged from its position.
But was Zelaya’s removal actually illegal? The Congressional Research Service analyzed it, and concluded that Honduras’ parliament and Supreme Court, while lacking an impeachment mechanism in the country’s constitution, had the authority to issue an arrest warrant for Zelaya and remove him from office (via Fausta Wertz):
V. Was the removal of Honduran President Zelaya legal, in accordance with Honduran constitutional and statutory law?
Available sources indicate that the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.
However, removal of President Zelaya from the country by the military is in direct violation of the Article 102 of the Constitution, and apparently this action is currently under investigation by the Honduran authorities.
The Hondurans made a blunder by exiling Zelaya. Had they kept him in custody, very little of what followed would have occurred. Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega would have screamed about it, but the US and most of the rest of the OAS — including Costa Rica, where Honduras dumped Zelaya — would have probably remained on the sidelines. That action clearly violates both the Honduran constitution and the notion of due process.
Otherwise, though, the removal from office appears to be legal. The Supreme Court heard evidence of lawbreaking by the president, and unless the US now subscribes to a principle of putting politicians above the law, the parliament and the court had not just the right but the responsibility to hold him accountable. The succession of Roberto Micheletti was also constitutional after Zelaya’s removal. The CRS notes that the Honduran court applied the statutes properly and followed the correct procedures:
IV. Did the Supreme Court follow up by holding a proper, constitutionally mandated trial of the President?
As stated in the answer to question II(a), above, the Supreme Court, based on its constitutional powers, heard the case against Zelaya and applied the appropriate procedure mandated by the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The Chief Prosecutor filed a complaint (requerimiento fiscal) against President Zelaya before the Supreme Court on June 26, 2009. The complaint: (1) accused the President of acting against the established form of government, treason against the country, abuse of authority, and usurpation of functions; (2) requested that the Court order the arrest of the President; (3) requested that the Court notify the President of the facts alleged against him; (4) requested that the President’s testimony be heard; and (5) requested that the President be suspended from office.
The Supreme Court, based on its constitutional45 and statutory46 powers, appointed one of its Justices to hear the process in the preparatory and intermediate stages. Following the procedure, the Justice admitted the complaint and issued an arrest and raid warrant.47 The process at the Supreme Court did not continue due to the events that occurred after Zelaya’s arrest.
The CRS analysis supports the position of the current Honduran government and undermines the argument of the Obama administration.