Criminalizing Democracy in Honduras

Should a Supreme Court be able to order anyone’s arrest for attempting to conduct a poll?

It would be nice to think that in Canada the answer would unanimously be no. It would be nice to believe that a court that made such an absurd ruling would be ridiculed, and that a constitution that provided the shakiest foundation for it would be seen as one in urgent need of revision.

Incredibly, the Honduran Supreme Court found numerous supporters, and no detractors, among the editors of Canada’s major newspapers when it ordered the arrest of President Manuel Zelaya because he dared to ask Hondurans a question. At best, the Canadian press chided the Honduran military for going further than the Supreme Court ordered when it expelled Zelaya from Honduras.

The Facts

Below is that exact question President Zelaya intended to put to voters in a non-binding poll:

¿Está 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 Constitución política?


“Do you agree that in the general elections of November 2009 a fourth ballot box should be installed to decide whether to convene a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a political Constitution?”

[see June 29 entry http://hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com/
see also IPS;”Honduras: Coup d’Etat – What’s In a Name?” by Diana Cariboni]

Note that there is nothing in this question about presidential term limits – a topic that would play a central role in a propaganda campaign against Zelaya.

The Supreme Court ruled that the poll was illegal and ordered the military to arrest Zelaya. The military then forced him, at gunpoint, onto a plane that took him to Costa Rica. A de facto government proceeded to impose martial law, shut down media outlets considered sympathetic to Zelaya, kill at least three protestors, and imprisoned at least 100 more.[1]

The Canadian Press Responds

Lobbyists closely linked to the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton quickly went to work on behalf of the de facto Honduran government. [2] Numerous articles spread the lie that the poll Zelaya attempted to conduct was a binding vote on abolishing presidential term limits.

One article (by the Toronto Star’s Lynda Hurst on July 11) embellished the story even further. She wrote

“Zelaya tangled with the country’s Congress and Supreme Court over his plans for a referendum that would allow him to rewrite the constitution to remove the one-term limit on presidents.”

These words suggest that the poll was a binding “referendum” which must have asked something like

“Do you agree that President Zelaya should personally rewrite the constitution to abolish term limits?”

Some Canadian pundits were extravagant in their praise for the coup. George Jonas wrote an article for the National Post entitled “Where’s the coup?”. Peter Worthington wrote another for the Toronto Sun entitled “Honduran Prez Deserved Boot.” The Post published a Wall Street Journal editorial on July 3 (“The wages of Chavismo”) which said that Zelaya’s arrest “may be the best legal outcome.” The Post also ran a lengthy article by the Economist’s bureau chief for Central America and the Caribbean, Dan Rosenheck, entitled “Everyone is wrong about Honduras”.

Rosenheck denounced Zelaya for his “criminal misbehaviour” in attempting to ask the public a question. Rosenheck also claimed that in “virtually every other country in the world, Zelaya would have been removed from office” for defying the Supreme Court. Rosenheck apparently forgot that Gerard Latortue, the Haitian dictator staunchly backed by Washington and Ottawa, illegally fired half the Supreme Court in 2005 because he disagreed with one of its rulings. [3] Rosenheck forgot (or perhaps is not even aware given how little attention it has received) that the current Haitian government has ignored a ruling by the Inter American Court ordering it to pay damages to former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune for his illegal two year imprisonment.[4] In both cases, Haitian governments acted with complete impunity and prompted negligible comment in the Canadian or US media. Slavish obedience to the courts is only advocated when they are seen to be defending elite interests. [5]

Of course, not all the Canadian press supported the coup as enthusiastically as the National Post. Others produced more nuanced pro-coup propaganda.

On June 30 a Montreal Gazette ran an editorial entitled “Good guys hard to find in Honduran military coup”. The editorial falsely stated that

“Zelaya had decided he needed to change the constitution to allow himself to seek a second term in office, in elections this November”

The Toronto Star’s editorial of June 30 denounced the coup but began by lashing out at Zelaya:

“President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras is a divisive and reckless figure.”

The Star’s editorial also repeated the falsehood that Zelaya “was deposed while trying to hold a non-binding plebiscite to ask Hondurans if they want to amend the constitution to permit presidents to serve more than one term”

The Globe & Mail’s editorial of June 30 repeated a similar lie:

“Arguably, Mr. Zelaya’s proposed referendum on r emoving presidential term limits violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution of Honduras.”

The Globe’s July 6 editorial was even harsher and accused President Zelaya of

“…pushing to stay on, putting himself ahead of the country’s understandable need for protection against Chavez-style lifetime rule.”

Presidential Term Limits – a Basic Human Right?

The press has used the issue of term limits to either demonize Zelaya (as in the National Post) or to at least to cast aspersions on his legitimacy. Most importantly, it has directed attention away from the brutality of the de facto government. The pro-democracy movement in Honduras resists oppression with minimal attention from the Canadian press. To learn much about the inspiring movement to restore democracy one must turn to online sources like Rights Action. [www.rightsaction]

There was absolutely nothing about term limits in the question Zelaya wanted to ask Hondurans. There is no way he could have run for a second term had this poll been done and gone his way. There is no way he could have run in November even if a fourth ballot was approved by at least 2/3 of Congress (as it would have to have been) and even if voters approved a Constitutional Assembly. [6] There is no guarantee that a Constitutional Assembly would have extended or abolished presidential term limits. More importantly, there is no justification for treating presidential term limits as a basic human right which the Honduran people should not be allowed to abolish.

What did Honduran elites really fear given that Zelaya could not have run in November? The answer lies in Globe & Mail’s remark about “Chavez-style life time rule”.

The Threat of Direct Democracy

In 1999, Venezuelans voted in a referendum in which they were asked if they were in favor of electing a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution. They voted to do so and then elected a Constituent Assembly which drafted a new constitution. Voters then approved the new constitution in another referendum.

Venezuela’s constitution of 1999 maintained a two term limit on the presidency and instituted a recall vote (which Chavez was subjected to and won in 2004). Term limits on all elected positions (not just the presidency) were abolished through a referendum in February=2 0of 2009. Recall votes remain in place as does the democratic procedure for amending the constitution again if voters decide that they want term limits reinstated. [7]

However, when these facts pass through the ideological filters of the Canadian press what comes out the other end is “Chavez-style life time rule”. Abolishing term limits is equated to abolishing elections. Carelessness cannot explain such flagrant distortion of readily available facts. Canada does not have term limits. It is inconceivable that any newspaper would claim that Canadian Prime Ministers have “life-time rule”.[8]

Like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have recently followed a democratic process to rewrite their constitutions. It was fear of this democratic process that terrified Honduran elites especially since 2008 when Zelaya moved Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a regional trade group led by Venezuela. Zelaya had also pushed through an increase in the Honduran minimum wage which also enraged the elite.[9]

The Honduran constitution was written as the country was only beginning to emerge from a decade of military rule (a process that is still far from complete as the coup demonstrates). The military banned Communists and even conservative Christian Democrats from the elections that formed a Constitutional Assembly in 1980. [10] The cu rrent constitution has only been amended by Congress, never through direct participation of the people as has been done in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

The Role of US and Canada

Faced with overwhelming international condemnation of the coup, the Canadian and US governments have verbally denounced it, but also worked to strengthen the position of the de facto government. This has barely been discussed in the press – unsurprisingly, since it has proven incapable of reporting the most basic facts about the coup accurately.

Fortunately, in the internet age, Canadians need not limit themselves to the corporate media. Eva Golinger has regularly updated events since the coup unfolded and highlighted numerous ways in which the Obama administration has provided significant economic and diplomatic help to the de facto government. [11] Yves Engler wrote an article for Znet that discussed similar efforts made by Canada to help the regime. [12] Rights Action has provided detailed updates on the struggles of the Honduran pro-democracy movement.

The more Canadians look beyond the corporate media, the more difficult it will be for Canadian governments to provide any level of support for coups.


1) Send polite, non-abusive emails to the following newspapers.
Please copy all letters and replies to Joe@canuckmedeiamonitor.org

National Post:


George Jonas

Toronto Sun:


Montreal Gazette:


Toronto Star

Public Editor (publiced@thestar.ca)
Editor (mcooke@@thestar.ca)
Lynda Hurst (lhurst@thestar.ca)
Letters (lettertoed@thestar.ca)

Toronto Globe & Mail

Editor (jgeiger@globeandmail.com)
Letters (letters@GlobeAndMail.ca)

2) Check out the Rights Action website and consider participating in their alerts

3) Write to the Canadian Prime Minist er pm@parl.gc.ca and copy your MP

4) Forward this alert far and wide


[1] http://canuckmediamonitor.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=142

[2] http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/22036


[3] Dominion.ca interview with Brian Concannon http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/1070

[4] Znet; Emersberger; “Persecution of Neptune” http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/19095

[5] Alabama Governor George Wallace was not arrested or overthrown in 1963 when he physically blocked the University of Alabama to keep black students out. Wallace had been ordered to let the students in by a federal court that was enforcing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.


President Franklin Roosevelt was not arrested or overthrown for clashing with the US Supreme Court over the New Deal. The Supreme Court invalidated many New Deal programs as unconstitutional. Roosevelt retaliated with a “court-packing plan”, that would have allowed him to appoint more judges. The plan failed in the Senate, but played a role in getting the Supreme Court to back off. Hugo Chavez deployed a similar strategy in Venezuela to overcome Supreme Court opposition to social programs much to the outrage of num erous Canadian and US pundits.


The executive and judicial branches of government frequently clash though not always as dramatically as in theses cases. There is no reason to assume that one branch always has the moral high ground, or to discard moral considerations when evaluating these disputes.

[6] see http://hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com/


[8] The Globe & Mail editors argued that term limits aren’t crucial to parliamentary democracies because Prime Ministers can be voted out through parliamentary votes. Only two federal governments in Canada have been brought down by non-confidence votes in the last 142 years.

[9] http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3752

[10] NYT; April 20, 1980; Honduras Electing Natinoal Assembly

[11] http://www.chavezcode.com/2009/07/coup-reg…d-solution.html


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