On June 25, Hondurans awoke in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The previous night, President Manuel Zelaya announced the sacking of General Romeo Vasquez, head of the Honduran armed forces. General Vasquez had declined to lend logistical support to a referendum on constitutional reform which is scheduled to take place in the country on June 28. As a result of this referendum, the president hopes to eliminate the one-term limit placed on Honduran presidents.
The referendum has been declared illegal by Congress and the Supreme Court, and Vasquez said that he would be violating the law by allowing the military to follow the president’s directives. However, having previously announced that “orders are meant to be followed, not analyzed,” the president acted on his threat by firing the general.
The sacking of General Vasquez caused the nation’s military bases to go into a state of “high alert”. Armored vehicles rolled out onto the streets and soldiers took up positions at key intersections. Later that day the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared Zelaya’s re-election null and ordered the seizure of all ballot boxes and election-related materials. According to Spanish daily El Pais, the ballot boxes were being kept at the Tegucigalpa airport having been flown in from Venezuela. Investigators from the Ministerio Público, the Honduran attorney general’s office, arrived to seize the election cartons.
However, the president decided to strike back and ordered hundreds of supporters to follow him to the airport on a “mission” to rescue the boxes. Zelaya placed himself at the head of the march and oversaw the mob’s actions as they tore down the gates to the base and swelled past riot police, forcefully removing the boxes from the military base.
While some figures, most notably the ousted General Vasquez, have called for citizens to remain calm, Zelaya appears intent on doing the opposite. By pursuing his referendum, which has been declared illegal by the Honduran Supreme Court, and has been heavily criticized by Congress, Zelaya is escalating what could become an extremely volatile situation. More importantly, he is setting a dangerous precedent by completely ignoring or assaulting the other two branches of government.
The president’s version of events
On June 26, Zelaya announced that Congress was plotting a “technical coup” to remove him from power through legal maneuverings. The technical coup Zelaya was referring to was an impeachment vote, which is allowed under the constitution. However, this also could be an attempt on Zelaya’s part to garner support for his position in view of an upcoming emergency meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, what he considers to be a friendly gesture. By presenting his government as being under attack by right-wing elements who wish to terminate his presidency, Zelaya can divert attention from his own debatable actions.
Zelaya is fanning the flames of his already divided country and making an already tense situation much worse. Realizing that the other branches of government would most likely want to block the referendum, Zelaya apparently decided to resort to street politics, arousing his supporters and creating a situation which could have resulted in bloodshed. However, by closing his mind to the rulebook and not operating within the established legal procedures, he is also giving his opponents the green light to also decide to not play by the rules, behaving in a similarly illegal manner. If he and those opposed to him continue to up the ante, Honduras could find itself embroiled in political violence for the first time in half a century.
Brian Thompson is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.