Thursday, January 13, 2011

No More Standards at All: So Much for Unalterable Constitutional Clauses

Honduran congress-members overthrow the myth of the "untouchable" articles of the Constitution.

Say what?

That's the headline on an AFP story by Freddy Cuevas, which notes that
There is a measure of irony in the changes approved Wednesday night...
Well, yeah...

The AP article includes an interesting characterization of the original motivation for including the language in the constitution that seems to block any revision of the constitution:
The permanent ban on re-election was imposed as the country emerged from a military dictatorship, and it was meant to break the vicious cycle of Honduran leaders perpetuating themselves in power for years...

This is a worth thinking about. The implication would be that Honduras had a history of elected presidents overstaying their welcome prior to the writing of the new constitution in 1982. The archetype for this in the 20th century would have to be Tiburcio Carías Andino, who maintained his position as head of state after being elected in 1932 until 1949.

But there is not, otherwise, any evidence that elected Honduran leaders in the 20th century took part in any "vicious cycle" of "perpetuating themselves in power for years". What actually dominated the post-Carías Andino period is a pattern of repeated military interventions removing elected leaders from office, and ruling as dictators or juntas.

Juan Manuel Gálvez was elected to succeed Carías Andino (and, it must be said, with his support); after the 1954 election did not produce a clear outcome, his vice president, Julio Lozano Diaz, seized control; he was in turn forced out by the military in 1956. A year later, elections under this military government gave Ramón Villeda Morales a six year term of office. This was cut short, again, by a military coup in 1963.

The military held power-- albeit with shifting leadership-- from 1963 until 1971, and again from 1972 to 1982. (Ramón Ernesto Cruz Uclés was elected in 1971 and removed from office less than two years later by the general who preceded him, Oswaldo López Arrellano.) So what would have helped stop the "vicious cycle" of perpetuation of power in the creation of the constitution of the 1980s would have been reducing the influence of the armed forces-- following the model, for example, of Costa Rica, which abolished the military after a devastating civil war ended in 1948.

All throughout 2009, the strongest argument the de facto regime could come up with to justify the coup d'etat was that it was necessary to protect the constitution against an attempt by the President Zelaya to prolong his term in office. Some US pundits agreed that changing term limits was one of the most dangerous things a Latin American government could do. Often these same commentators cited such moves by left of center governments, while staying silent on right of center governments doing the same thing. The occasional US scholar argued that we could assume that the only reason a sitting president in Latin America wanted to promote a constitutional assembly would be to allow re-election, rejecting Manuel Zelaya's repeated denials of this intention and ignoring the many other goals of constitutional revision advanced by his government.

The new congressional action needs to be voted on a second time, by a second congress, to be considered valid, so we won't know until after January 25 whether this symbolic gesture ends here.

To be clear, what the Honduran congress just did is in no way a substitute for what the Zelaya government was proposing, and what the Frente de Resistencia has continued to advocate. Both the Zelaya government and the Frente have pursued completely revisiting the constitution through a participatory forum, an assembly, not via amendment by the Congress, which these bodies argue is not truly representative of the will of the Honduran people or its broader interests and needs.

Juan Barahona of the FNRP said in comments to the AFP that what Honduran politicians
"want is to cleanse themselves of the coup d'Etat".

"For us, you cannot reform a constitution that does not exist; it was nullified on the 28th of June of 2009; since then, we have been in a de facto period".

So don't expect this to end advocacy for a constitutional assembly.

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