Another Civil Coup in Honduras?

December 12th, 2012

In 2009, the Honduran congress and supreme court perpetrated a messy coup against president Manuel Zelaya. Yesterday President Lobo and the Honduran congress have perpetrated an “institutional” coup against the supreme court, sacking 4 out of its 5 members.

This was in retaliation for repeated blocking of key legislation proposed by the president in his first 3 years of office. The supreme court declared special development zones called “charter cities”, as proposed by economist Paul Romer, unconstitutional a few months back. In the past weeks, the supreme court declared that using polygraph tests to weed out corrupt police was unconstitutional. Both were pet presidential and congressional projects.

The Death of Charter Cities

Paul Romer’s proposal of creating cities like Singapore and Hong Kong from scratch in third world countries was branded as neo-colonialism by many, especially the left. Since these cities would be built with foreign investment, the Honduran left described it as selling national property, or creating micro-states within the country, or changing the countries borders, all illegal in the Honduran constitution. Unflattering comparison was drawn with Ayn Rand, a controversial figure.

The proposal of building a charter city in the political minefield of land rights that is the Aguan valley of Honduras, was the worst possible location. Romer was forced to withdraw his support amid mounting condemnation in the international press. The supreme court fired the coup-de-grace by declaring the concept of charter cities unconstitutional.

Weeding out the police

The president is trying to weed out rampant corruption in the police, many of whom have been reported to be in collusion with Mexican cartels. His methods are an imitation of Mexican former President Felipe Calderon’s attempts to do the same.

Calderón created many police forces in the last few years. The original police force was wiped out ruthlessly by the cartels, who bombed out their headquarters with grenades, murdered police chief after police chief until in many municipalities in the northern Mexican states, surviving police officers deserted their posts to protect their families.

In one town, a 20-year-old mother and criminology student named Marisol Valles García was the only one brave enough to take the mantle of police chief. She was forced to flee to the US, where she is seeking assylum, after death threats from the cartels.

The military, especially the Mexican navy, was assigned to protect northen Mexican cities. This, however, drew the ire of human rights groups, who see military interactions with civilians as invitations for abuse of power and atrocities. Their fears became reality when the military shot down two college students in the first week they patrolled Monterrey. As a result, the US embassy removed their non-essential personnel from the city, and many foreign students dropped out of the school.

The Fuerza Civil, a civilian police force was created as a result. Confidence tests (using a polygraph, or lie detector) are regularly administered to the military and police in Mexico as well. This is where President Lobo’s proposal for confidence test for Honduran police comes from.

Why this is a coup

Honduran law states that supreme court magistrates serve for their natural lifespan, unless they resign. Also, the supreme court was correct in both their decisions.

A key charter city provision is that cities should be free to set their own laws, even in opposition to their host countries. This was necessary because of China’s oppressive government would destroy the fragile prosperity of Hong Kong otherwise. But when Hong Kong was returned to China, all of China suddenly became capitalist: the Chinese leaders would rather change their doctrine than ruin a successful city. But setting a limit on Honduran laws was not foreseen in the 1982 constitution.

Polygraph tests are unreliable, and thus, are not admissible evidence. Thus the should not be used solely to establish guilt. Probably they should be used to warrant further investigation, but their accuracy could let many culprits free, and bring unnecessary suspicion on the innocent. Here the supreme court’s decision is not so clear. They were nominally seeking to protect the human rights of police officers from unreasonable suspicion. But they were accused of political partisanship.

Crying Wolf

President Lobo loudly and publicly complained about these supreme court decisions to the press. A few days ago he stated that the Honduran political system “learned nothing” from the 2009 coup. He said that the owner of two of the most read newspapers was plotting another coup, only because he put a defense the supreme court’s decision on the front cover of his newspapers (see picture above).

Thus we have come to another civil coup, and the anthill of Honduran politics will be put into upheaval. But, I doubt international condemnation will descend on us this time, because no one was put on a plane to a foreign country this time. I truly hope that Lobo’s government will survive until the next elections.

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