Monday, November 29, 2010

Hugo Llorens Concluded Coup was Utterly Unjustified

------- Comment -------
¶19. (C) The analysis of the Constitution sheds some interesting light on the events of June 28. The Honduran establishment confronted a dilemma: near unanimity among the institutions of the state and the political class that Zelaya had abused his powers in violation of the Constitution, but with some ambiguity what to do about it. Faced with that lack of clarity, the military and/or whoever ordered the coup fell back on what they knew -- the way Honduran presidents were removed in the past: a bogus resignation letter and a one-way ticket to a neighboring country. No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti's ascendance as "interim president" was totally illegitimate.

¶20. (C) Nonetheless, the very Constitutional uncertainty that presented the political class with this dilemma may provide the seeds for a solution. The coup's most ardent legal defenders have been unable to make the intellectual leap from their arguments regarding Zelaya's alleged crimes to how those allegations justified dragging him out of his bed in the night and flying him to Costa Rica. That the Attorney General's office and the Supreme Court now reportedly question the legality of that final step is encouraging and may provide a face-saving "out" for the two opposing sides in the current standoff. End Comment.
These are the last two paragraphs in a cable sent from Tegucigalpa in July, 2009, by US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens.

The cable, included among a massive release of documents by Wikileaks, has already been discussed by the Miami Herald. They chose to emphasize the fact that the ambassador reached the conclusion that the coup was "clearly illegal".

That conclusion should come as no surprise to anyone who has actually paid attention to the facts, and tells us more about the ability of the US media to refuse to understand those facts than about the content of the cable or US policy.

Instead, we would emphasize the point by point summary of the arguments of coup supporters and the devastating rejection of those points:
¶3. (SBU) Defenders of the June 28 coup have offered some combination of the following, often ambiguous, arguments to assert it's legality:

-- Zelaya had broken the law (alleged but not proven);

-- Zelaya resigned (a clear fabrication);

-- Zelaya intended to extend his term in office (supposition);

-- Had he been allowed to proceed with his June 28 constitutional reform opinion poll, Zelaya would have dissolved Congress the following day and convened a constituent assembly (supposition);

-- Zelaya had to be removed from the country to prevent a bloodbath;

-- Congress "unanimously" (or in some versions by a 123-5 vote) deposed Zelaya; (after the fact and under the cloak of secrecy); and

-- Zelaya "automatically" ceased to be president the moment he suggested modifying the constitutional prohibition on presidential reelection.

¶4. (C) In our view, none of the above arguments has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution. Some are outright false. Others are mere supposition or ex-post rationalizations of a patently illegal act. Essentially:

-- the military had no authority to remove Zelaya from the country;

-- Congress has no constitutional authority to remove a Honduran president;

-- Congress and the judiciary removed Zelaya on the basis of a hasty, ad-hoc, extralegal, secret, 48-hour process;

-- the purported "resignation" letter was a fabrication and was not even the basis for Congress's action of June 28; and

-- Zelaya's arrest and forced removal from the country violated multiple constitutional guarantees, including the prohibition on expatriation, presumption of innocence and right to due process.

This reads almost exactly like a summary of the arguments we have made, in this blog and its predecessor, Honduras Coup 2009.

We also like the ambassador's choice of words for paragraphs 11 through 13 of his cable, which he entitled "The Article 239 Canard". As he properly noted, this was only cited post-facto to retroactively claim that President Zelaya had removed himself from office by advocating constitutional reform. The US Embassy cites numerous good reasons for rejecting this entire line of argument.

Most wonderful in this section is the final paragraph:
¶13. (C) It further warrants mention that Micheletti himself should be forced to resign following the logic of the 239 argument, since as President of Congress he considered legislation to have a fourth ballot box ("cuarta urna") at the November elections to seek voter approval for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Any member of Congress who discussed the proposal should also be required to resign, and National Party presidential candidate Pepe Lobo, who endorsed the idea, should be ineligible to hold public office for 10 years.

This is indeed the case; but look who's in the Presidential Palace now, with full US recognition.

Finally, we fully endorse the conclusion in paragraph 18 that the illegal actions of the Honduran Congress did more than remove Zelaya; they were an illegal removal of an entire branch of government by the other two branches, a violation of the very notion of checks and balances:
In the absence of any of these conditions and since Congress lacked the legal authority to remove Zelaya, the actions of June 28 can only be considered a coup d'etat by the legislative branch, with the support of the judicial branch and the military, against the executive branch. It bears mentioning that, whereas the resolution adopted June 28 refers only to Zelaya, its effect was to remove the entire executive branch.

There is every reason to expect more material posted on Wikileaks will be relevant to understanding US policy in Honduras.

The question this July 2009 cable raises is, why was the US so timid in its actions when it had access to such a clear exposition of the issues?


Anonymous said...

The release of this memo fully vindicates the work that you did to examine Honduran law, and you deserve congratulations and a standing O for that work.

I think there's another important inference to be drawn from this release. Llorens' tone is blunt to the point of being testy. He calls it an open and shut case, twice emphasizes that Zelaya was removed by the military, citing no evident civilian control, and calls the coup "patently illegal." He also suggests that the "Attorney General's office and the Supreme Court now reportedly question the legality" could form the basis for "a face-saving 'out.'" This "out" would seem to involve prosecuting Micheletti and Vasquez Velasquez.

I would call the tone of this memo indirect evidence that Llorens was not in on the nature of the coup, that perhaps he was trying to refute arguments by State (specifically Koh and Donoghue) that the coup might have been legal. This interpretation contradicts the (slim) evidence that Llorens might have been a protagonist of the coup independent of the State Department. Rather, my hypothesis has been that State had signed off on a soft coup using the trappings of legality, and that elements of the military and intelligence apparatus decided that a military-style coup was essential to intimidate other Bolivaran leaders. For an ambassador to be bypassed would be unusual, especially considering that Llorens was, to judge from his background, apt to be susceptible to the argument that Zelaya was planning to be another Chavez.

I hope we'll find out more, especially about the interesting detail that Zelaya was flown out through Palmerola. Surely if State was innocent of involvement in the coup, they would have been quizzing the ambassador on that one.

RNS said...

Administrative note. Today, Dec. 3, at about 10:28PM GMT I updated the link to the Hugo Llorens cable to the new location after Wikileaks was booted from US domains. For those looking for the new URL: