First published in Upside Down World, 21 December 2009
I was surprised to discover at the end of October while reading the newspaper in Honduras that a coup d’état had been detected in Nicaragua. According to the 21 October edition of the Honduran daily La Tribuna, former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Alemán had applied the term golpe de estado to the recent ruling by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court of Justice that Article 147 of the national Constitution prohibiting the immediate reelection of presidents was “inapplicable” in the case of current President Daniel Ortega’s proposed candidature in 2011.
Alemán refrained from applying such terminology to the behavior of courts of other nationalities, such as the June order by the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice that the Honduran armed forces remove President Mel Zelaya from power—which seemed to be more in line with the traditional definition of “coup” as it had involved a change of government. The Honduran coup regime of Roberto Micheletti meanwhile missed the opportunity to capitalize on conceptual adaptations by Alemán and to concede that there had in fact been a coup in Honduras but that it had been carried out by Zelaya.
Such a claim would have been facilitated by golpista insistence that Zelaya’s real motive for suggesting a popular consultation on the subject of constitutional change was to indefinitely prolong his mandate, thereby violating Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution prohibiting presidents from being reelected. As for coups not conducted by Zelaya, these potentially included the Honduran Supreme Court decision that Article 240 of the Constitution prohibiting the presidential candidature of the current president of Congress was not applicable to Congressional President Micheletti’s candidature in the 2008 presidential primaries.
The fluctuating sanctity of Central American constitutions is illustrated in an April editorial in the (anti-Ortega) Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, which points out that Article 174 prohibits not only the immediate reelection of presidents but also the election of a president to more than two terms. According to the editorial, the opposition Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) “would be willing” to negotiate with the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) a cancellation of the latter prohibition but not the former, as it might interfere with Alemán’s “great dream of once again becoming president of Nicaragua.”
As for other obstacles to Alemán’s reelection, these had been dispelled in January with the Nicaraguan Supreme Court decision to absolve him of a 2003 sentence to 20 years in prison based on corruption charges. Alemán had failed to question the Court’s loyalties in this case but was not so forgiving of the ruling absolving Ortega of his commitment to Article 147, despite the fact that the ruling had only been signed by 6 magistrates and still had to be ratified by the plenary court in order to obtain validity—thus adding to the incubation period of the proposed coup d’état.
According to Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate Francisco Rosales, the ruling was “based on the principle that sovereign power resides with the people,” which appears in Article 2 of the Nicaraguan Constitution and suggests that the citizenry—if so inclined—should be permitted to reelect a president. Other interpretations of popular sovereignty have of course been offered by the Honduran coup regime, which has deemed that Article 2 of the Honduran Constitution establishing that “sovereignty corresponds to the people” is not sufficient to legitimize popular consultations.
I visited Nicaragua in early November, following a brief spell of Sandinista protests outside the embassy of the United States in Managua as a result of US Ambassador to Nicaragua Robert Callahan’s disapproval of the Supreme Court ruling on Article 147—which he had refrained from categorizing as a coup d’état. As for categorizations of the Honduran coup by US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens, these included “Whatever you call it,” with the invention of euphemisms for the term “military coup” nonetheless insufficient to prevent golpista complaining about US interventionism.
An AP article of 29 October quotes the Nicaraguan government as accusing the US of an “interventionist and destabilizing policy.” Rhetorical overlaps between regional US allies and foes become even more intriguing, however, when they occur between the US itself and regional foes, as happens in a 1 November The Wall Street Journal article entitled “Hillary’s Honduran Exit Strategy” by Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who not only proposes that Llorens be transferred to a diplomatic post in Cuba based on his affinity for relevant ideologies but also announces that Barack Obama wants to join the Chávez-Castro clan based on his affinity for Zelaya. The solidity of clan ties was meanwhile called into question by a cash register attendant at a convenience store in the Nicaraguan town of San Juan del Sur, who began by informing me that Zelaya and Ortega were interchangeable before reforming her analysis to posit the interchangeability of Ortega and Micheletti, although she did not explain whether this was because they were both golpistas.
In a 5 November editorial in La Prensa, Sergio Ramírez—Nicaraguan intellectual and former Sandinista functionary prior to his split from the movement in the 1990s—laments that the Nicaraguan coup d’état has not triggered an international uproar on par with the one triggered by the Honduran coup and that the US, for example, has merely “expressed its concern.” Ramírez alleges that the Chávez-led model of “21st century socialism requires perpetual leaders” but fails to address the likelihood that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s determination to modify the Colombian Constitution once again in order to permit his second reelection is not in the interest of perpetuating socialism of the 21st century, or the fact that US expressions of concern in Honduras have recently been replaced by US exulting over the results of elections held by the Honduran coup regime.
O’Grady might have done well to enhance her own article with Ramírez’ research, which includes the claim that Ortega had informed Al Jazeera’s David Frost that he had a family history of longevity and that “he hoped to live until age 98… and to remain president the entire time.” In case readers have not grasped the severity of the situation from the editorial’s title “From Here to Eternity,” Ramírez reiterates in the final paragraph: “[Ortega] is planning to remain in power until at least 98 years of age.”
A perusal of Frost’s March interview with the Nicaraguan president reveals that Ortega’s temporal calculations actually consisted of the following: “My mother lived 97 years. And I hope to be able to live long enough to contribute to this new phase of development of the revolution.” Rather than address Ortega’s additional comment that the Constitutional prohibition on immediate reelection was itself the result of right-wing reforms to the document enacted in 1995, Ramírez prefers to criticize the argument that “the Constitution was unconstitutional”—a slightly milder sentiment than that expressed by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias in regards to the Honduran Constitution, which he classified as the worst such document on the face of the earth.
A policeman seated on a park bench in San Juan del Sur in November denied that an interruption of the constitutional order had resulted from the alleged Nicaraguan coup d’état and, despite identifying himself as an opponent of the FSLN, suggested that Ortega should be able to run for president as many times as he liked as the only valid way to register one’s opposition was at the ballot box. He allowed for variations on this philosophy in Honduras, however, where opposition to an unimagined coup has been registered via a rejection of the electoral process.