Puzzled By Honduras

From the New York Times:

“The Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army on Sunday after pressing ahead with plans for a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election, in the first military coup in Central America since the end of the cold war.

Soldiers entered the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and disarmed the presidential guard early Sunday, military officials said. Mr. Zelaya’s private secretary, Eduardo Enrique Reina, confirmed the arrest. (…)

Political tensions have increased as Mr. Zelaya pressed ahead with plans for a nonbinding referendum that opponents said would open the way for him to rewrite the constitution to run for re-election despite a one-term limit. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, supporters and opponents of the president held competing demonstrations.

Last week, the Supreme Court and Congress both declared the referendum unconstitutional. But on Thursday, the president led a group of protesters to an air force installation and seized the ballots, which the prosecutor’s office and the electoral tribunal had ordered confiscated.

After the armed forces commander, Romeo Vazquez, said that the military would not participate in the referendum, Mr. Zelaya fired him. But the Supreme Court declared the firing illegal.”

I am puzzled by this. I found the Times’ description of the referendum unilluminating (“a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election” — what does that mean?) So I went off in search of the actual question, which seems to be this:

“Esta usted de acuerdo que en las elecciones generales de noviembre de 2009 se instale una cuarta urna para decidir sobre la convocatoria a una Asamblea Nacional Constituyente que apruebe una nueva Constitucion politica?”

Unless my rusty Spanish misleads me, this means: “Do you agree that there should be a fourth urn (I’m guessing this means: ballot box) in the Nov. 2009 general elections to decide whether to convene the National Constituent Assembly to approve a new Constitution?”

Apparently, the Supreme Court ruled that this referendum is unconstitutional, either because the President does not have the right to call referenda, or because “the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.” (Though why the latter would mean that the referendum is illegal, and not just that the proposed Assembly could not legally change those parts of the Constitution, is a mystery.)

As a result, the Army, which normally distributes ballots, declined to do so, the President sacked the head of the Army, his Attorney General argued to the Supreme Court that the firing was illegal (on the rather puzzling grounds that “it regarded the president’s decision to hold the referendum as “illegal,” and therefore his order to the military commanders as well”), and the Supreme Court agreed.

Meanwhile, the Congress banned referenda within 180 days of a general election, thereby making this referendum illegal. The President took the ballots so that the referendum could be held, and today the military removed him from power and flew him to Costa Rica.

The President’s supporters seem to think that he plans to use a National Constituent Assembly to create some sort of Chavez-like system in Honduras. His supporters seem to think that the coup just reflects an entrenched oligarchy’s unwillingness to contemplate anything that might reduce their power. (Some Honduran takes are here.)

For my part, I am puzzled. (Seriously: I know nothing about Honduras.) If holding an Assembly to revise the Constitution is such a bad idea, why not just vote no on the referendum? If the people would, in fact, like to have such an Assembly, why not have one? What, in short, is so scary about a referendum that simply asks whether people would like to have an Assembly that might revise the Constitution in as yet unspecified ways? And even if there’s some reason for thinking that it is scary, is this (seemingly) mild, non-binding referendum anywhere near threatening enough to hold a coup over?

Can anyone shed light on this?

Update: I checked Randy Paul’s blog as I was writing this, but he waited until I had just hit post to put up a lovely, link-filled post about this. Check it out.

I should also have mentioned this, from the WSJ: “The Obama administration and members of the Organization of American States had worked for weeks to try to avert any moves to overthrow President Zelaya, said senior U.S. officials.” Apparently, the Honduran military just stopped taking their calls.

Here’s Obama’s statement:

“I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

The EU:

“The EU strongly condemns the arrest of the constitutional president of the Republic of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, by the armed forces. This is [an] unacceptable violation of constitutional order in Honduras. The EU calls for the urgent release of President Zelaya and a swift return to constitutional normality.”

Other reactions here, here, and here.