Honduras' "Pepe" Lobo Should be Wary of Constitutional Reform

Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo is currently in talks with the political opposition over the calling of a National Constituent Assembly to re-write the nation's constitution. His goal is to secure Honduras's re-entry into the Organization of American States (OAS). While the OAS has demanded a dialogue on constitutional reforms as a precondition for Honduras rejoining the body, President Lobo should approach this situation with care. The experience of other states in the region with revising their constitutions, especially states affiliated with the Venezuela sponsored Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), has often produced troubling results. President Lobo's best bet is to resist pressure for constitutional changes and seek to fix Honduras's problems by acting within the boundaries of the Honduran constitution. Washington should continue to support President Lobo's attempt to bring the country out of the crisis, and the Obama Administration should insist that whatever action taken remain within the bounds of Honduras's constitution.

Last Monday President Lobo held his first meeting with liberal opposition forces making up part of the "resistance" to his government. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the possibility of rewriting Honduras's constitution. The meeting was held in response to the recommendations of the Organization of American States' "Report of the High Level Commission regarding the Honduras Situation." Of particular attention in that document, dated July 29, 2010, is Annex 12, which lays out six steps for an eventual return of Honduras to the OAS. Among the steps is a call for President Lobo to discuss "democratic freedom," specifically referencing a constituent process. As a brief reminder, Honduras's current crisis was brought about in 2009 when then President Zelaya attempted to hold a non-binding referendum on the possibility of modifying the constitution.

Complicating the matter further, former President Zelaya has ordered the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) - over which he presides - to boycott the talks upon suspicion that these are a government "trap." The largest opposition group to President Pepe Lobo, the FNRP recently claimed that they have collected over 1.3 million signatures in favor of a constituent assembly. While significant, from a voting base of just under five million this number is far from representative. Nevertheless, for Mr. Zelaya to demand a boycott to the discussion on the very topic over which he was removed from office is both counter-intuitive and, for Zelaya's supporters in the country, frustrating - and perhaps demonstrates emerging rifts within the "resistance".

Most importantly, the Honduran Constitution of 1982 expressly forbids any attempt at constitutional modification. It does not allow for the possibility of a constituent assembly, or for the reforms proposed by former President Zelaya. Furthermore, the San Jose Accord itself, the agreement signed by both parties that set in place the peaceful resolution of the Zelaya conflict, explicitly excludes the possibility of a constituent assembly in Article 3, where it states, "...we reiterate our respect for the constitution (...) and we abstain from calling a new National Constituent Assembly."

This makes the OAS's call for dialogue on a constituent assembly particularly concerning. In effect, it would seem that the OAS is pushing for Honduras's government to violate its own constitution. This is hardly a recipe for stability, and it is something that Washington should take note of.

Moreover, President Lobo must be careful. In countries affiliated with the ALBA, constituent assemblies and modifications are often used as a path to increase executive power and to undo or modify presidential term limits. Such was the case in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The possibility of using this method to extend presidential term limits is currently under discussion in Nicaragua as well. Honduras, as a former ALBA country, is no stranger to the challenges of social upheaval that accompany these processes. This is precisely why Hondurans should continue to insist that the resolution to the ongoing conflict in their country be found within the legal confines of their constitution and not extra-legal assemblies proposed for the sake of expediency.

Washington, for its part, should strongly support President Lobo's government by reiterating its commitment to Honduras's re-entry into the OAS without an illegal and potentially destabilizing constituent assembly. Furthermore, Washington should work harder to shore up the OAS's weakened authority by actively engaging with it in issues of hemispheric importance and reiterating its commitment to rule of law based conflict resolution. Firm support for the rule of law will increase the credibility of Washington in the region, which is also often seen as sacrificing democratic principles upon the altar of expediency. A robust, pro-active commitment will also wrest power from the ALBA countries, who have of late taken on an increasingly prominent role in the direction of the OAS.