Honduras: Clarifying the Chain of Command

The interesting thing about the situation in Honduras is that while it’s being called a military coup, it’s in fact a contestation of the civilian chain of command over the military, with the actual dispute being between the executive on the one hand and the judiciary (backed up by the legislative branch) on the other. Notice that, having clarified the legitimate body to whom they answer, the generals didn’t seize power, but immediately turned it over to an interim civilian leader.

Notice, too, that the referendum in question, which the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional, is of the “constitutional coup” variety practiced for the most part by the Latin American populist left. But another aspiring practitioner, as Roque Planas reported in his WPR Briefing on Friday, is President Barack Obama’s White House guest today, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. The tactic has been pretty universally denounced as anti-democratic, with Uribe’s democratic bona fides being questioned as a result of his own efforts to amend Colombia’s constitution a second time to allow him to run for a third term in office.

So it’s closer to the truth to say that after a decade-long Golden Age, Latin America is facing a nascent democratic crisis essentially driven by competing models of the transfer (or non-transfer) of power. The constitutional term limits were an initial attempt to keep this conflict from materializing. But with the trend now being towards abrogating those limits, the events in Honduras represent the first example of muscular pushback by the judiciary.

I’m not lauding the actions of the Honduran military. But I find the near-universal condemnation in the Western Hemisphere curious, since the events seem to be at the very least of enough complexity to warrant serious reflection.

Thought experiment: In the aftermath of the 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, the Clinton administration orders the Florida election commission to continue counting the ballots in the contested districts. Whose orders do you want the Joint Chiefs of Staff to follow? The executive’s? Or the Supreme Court’s? I’d instictively go with the Court, even though it’s a far less “democratic” branch than the presidency.

But this kind of situation, more than anything, reflects the ways in which a functioning democracy internalizes a whole host of mechanisms whereby it backs away from the brink so that these sorts of crises simply don’t surface. And that has far less to do with the idea of counting votes than we often care to realize.