Saturday 10 October 2009
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Crisis in Honduras: What was really behind the removal of President Manuel Zelaya, and is he likely to be reinstated?
By José de Cordoba

A year ago, President Manuel Zelaya surprised Honduran notables who turned up for the country’s traditional independence day celebration when the sitting president shouted “Long Live Independence! Long Live the Republic!” It was supposed to be a moment of national unity.

But instead of unity, the president dished out division. Wearing his trademark white Stetson hat, Zelaya berated his audience of slack-jawed businessmen for 15 long minutes. “The businessmen and corrupt oligarchy are responsible for our country’s two centuries of poverty because they support an unjust, neoliberal economic model that exploits humans and our natural resources,” Zelaya declared.

Many in his audience began to jeer. “Fuera! Fuera! Fuera!” they shouted, urging that Zelaya be thrown out. As the situation threatened to get out of hand, Zelaya, surrounded by a large contingent of burly bodyguards, fled in his presidential motorcade.

On June 28, soldiers woke up the president at dawn and put Zelaya, in pajamas, on a plane out of the country, granting the majority of Honduras’ establishment its wish. Zelaya’s ouster—which has inspired flashbacks of an era not so long ago when soldiers seated and unseated Latin American presidents at will—has caused the biggest regional political crisis in years, and continues to pose a foreign policy dilemma for the Obama administration.

On September 21, after two failed attempts to return to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, Zelaya finally made it, appearing unannounced at the Brazilian embassy. His arrival electrified his supporters, about 2,000 of whom quickly amassed around the embassy. And so began another chapter in the political crisis that has divided Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. “I’ve traveled for 15 hours, overcoming many obstacles, because there were a lot of checkpoints, a lot of persecution,” Zelaya said in an interview in CNN’s Spanish language network. “Thanks to President Lula we have protection at the embassy of Brazil.”

To news interviewers, Zelaya said he was there to find a negotiated and peaceful way out of Honduras’ impasse. But to the hundreds of followers who surrounded the embassy he shouted, “Restitution, Fatherland or Death!” Officials feared Zelaya meant to lead a mob of his followers to the presidential palace to dislodge the interim government headed by Roberto Micheletti. A curfew was declared and in a pre-dawn operation the next day, hundreds of police and soldiers cleared out the crowd in front of the embassy.

The stage was set for what could be a dangerous war of wills. Zelaya and dozens of his supporters set up camp in the embassy, whose water, telephone and electricity were temporarily shut off. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called for Zelaya’s immediate restitution as president. But in Tegucigalpa, the Micheletti government, surprised and embarrassed by Zelaya’s daring return, stood firm. It demanded Zelaya turn himself over to the courts to face charges of treason and abuse of power. If not, Micheletti said with a shrug, Zelaya was welcome to stay at the Brazilian embassy for “five to 10 years” if he so wants.

For Zelaya, who since his ouster had become an itinerant figure, jetting from one Latin American capital to another in quest of support, the prospect of being trapped in an embassy must have appeared daunting. By the end of the week, he was already complaining that, surrounded by police and soldiers, he felt as if he were in prison.

After Zelaya’s return, Honduras went into a state of virtual lockdown as the government imposed an extensive curfew throughout the country. International airports were temporarily closed, mostly to stop an announced mission by José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States who hoped to mediate the dispute but is deeply distrusted by the Micheletti government. Meanwhile, Zelaya’s supporters defied the curfew to battle with police and soldiers and sack supermarkets and banks. At least one person has died in the disturbances.

It’s hard to predict how the crisis will end, given its soap opera, roller coaster aspects. But as this article went to print, there were some positive developments. Zelaya had met with an emissary from the Catholic Church as well as with the country’s leading presidential candidates. There was a new flurry of diplomatic activity in the works, with the OAS’ Insulza headed for Tegucigalpa for a new round of talks.

Since his ouster, Zelaya’s quest to be reinstated as president has been at times dramatic and tragic, at other times clownish and silly. He has veered between being an unlikely symbol of democracy in peril to a laughingstock, with the situation always just a hair’s breath away from turning into a disaster.

On July 5, as Zelaya made his first attempt to return, at least one person died in violent clashes between soldiers and hundreds of demonstrators when Zelaya, on a Venezuelan plane flown by a Venezuelan pilot, urged his followers to take over the Tegucigalpa airport so he could land.

Three weeks later, Zelaya, accompanied by Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, tried to enter Honduras again. At the Las Manos border post, Zelaya was unwillingly pushed towards the border by a crowd of supporters and television reporters until he had no choice but to hold up the rusty chain that marks the border between the two countries and wander a few feet into Honduran territory. He remained in Honduras, continuously talking on his cell phone, for 30 minutes before returning to Nicaragua.

“I’m not afraid, but I’m not crazy, either,” Zelaya said in explaining his behavior to a television reporter. That tepid entry inspired a satirical rumba in Venezuela. “Pasa la raya con Zelaya y brinca el muro con Maduro,” say the lyrics of the rumba, called El Zelayon.

For Honduras, Zelaya’s erratic journey has been costly. Since his ouster, Honduras, which was summarily suspended from the Organization of American States, has become an international pariah. No country recognizes the interim government headed by Micheletti, the former president of the congress who was named to succeed Zelaya by a congressional vote.

Until Zelaya’s return in September, life was headed towards a certain odd normalcy. The curfew that had marked the first days after his ouster had been lifted. Life had resumed a more or less normal rhythm, even though a dwindling band of a few thousand protestors, most of them members of unions and popular organizations loyal to Zelaya, had continued to block highways and briefly occupy government buildings.

Campaigning had begun for the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for November 29. The government and most of the country still hopes the new president that emerges from the election will provide a path out of the country’s present isolation, but the future is far from clear. The U.S., Honduras’ largest trading partner, has suggested it won’t recognize the new government, as have other countries. That would translate into continuing isolation and perhaps new sanctions. Piling on more pressure, at the end of September the United Nations suspended its links to Honduras’ electoral authorities.

Honduras’ crisis has thrown a growing regional problem into sharp relief: the trend of democratically elected presidents attempting to stay in power past their designated time in order to carry out a populist and leftist agenda. These leaders, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, have used the region’s historic poverty and inequality to gain support from the poor. On the way, they have created deep divisions and accentuated class hatreds while concentrating power by increasing government control over the economy and media.

Zelaya, a 57-year-old former rancher and logger, is part of this group that includes Chávez, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. In July, Ortega announced plans for a referendum to rewrite Nicaragua’s constitution to allow him to be re-elected indefinitely, something Chávez has already achieved in oil-rich Venezuela.

A similar move by Zelaya is responsible for the unrest in Honduras. For more than a year, Zelaya led a drive to rewrite the constitution to abolish term limits. On the day soldiers rousted him out of bed, he was planning a referendum to call a constitutional assembly, even though the vote had been declared illegal by the country’s Supreme Court.

Fearing Zelaya’s ouster would set a terrible precedent in a region where in the not-too-distant past military coups were common, the international community has thrown its weight behind Zelaya, demanding he be reinstated. The U.S., European Union and lenders such as the World Bank have suspended aid to the country. U.S.-backed talks mediated by Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias appear to have come to a dead end—with Zelaya demanding an unconditional return to power, while the interim government, backed by the country’s courts, attorney general and congress, maintained such a return would be illegal, and therefore impossible.

The crisis put the Obama administration in a difficult spot. Hoping to mark a new day in its relations with the region and mindful of its past U.S. support of coups in Latin America, the U.S. has led efforts for a negotiated solution. But Washington’s insistence that Zelaya return to power has angered many middle-class Hondurans, who feel the U.S. has profoundly misread the situation. They view Zelaya’s ouster not as a coup but a legal and patriotic defense of the country’s institutions from a Chávez-style power grab.

“The terror of Chávez goes beyond the rational, it’s a panic,” says Edmundo Orellana, Zelaya’s former defense minister, who blames the fear inspired by Chávez for Zelaya’s ouster. Moises Starkman, who advised Zelaya on special projects and now works for the interim government, also blames Chávez. “This is a showdown which will determine if the Chávista model triumphs or not,” he says.

Honduras’ refusal to buckle under pressure has startled the U.S., which historically has cast a long shadow over Honduras. It was the original Banana Republic, where in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, U.S. companies like United Fruit made and unmade presidents. In the 1980s, Honduras served as a base for U.S.-backed Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government next door in Nicaragua. This time, however, the U.S. has been unable to work its will here. “We have received all sort of pressures from different people, which we will never accept in any circumstance,” Micheletti said in July following a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging Zelaya’s return.

Unexpectedly, the Honduras affair threatens to embroil the Obama administration in an unwelcome controversy as it labors to push health reform and other crucial programs through congress. Recently, 17 Republican senators sent a letter to Clinton arguing that the U.S. is on the wrong side of history on Honduras. One irate Republican senator has refused to proceed with confirmation hearings for two important Obama administration appointments, including the State Department’s top Latin America hand.

A closer look at Zelaya’s life sheds light on how the son of a right-wing landowner ended up in an ideological marriage of convenience with Chávez. It also shows how Zelaya’s plans for adopting the Chávez recipe for getting and keeping power alienated virtually the entire Honduran establishment.

Nothing in Zelaya’s background suggested he would become an international symbol of imperiled democracy. Zelaya is a product of Olancho, a violent, semi-feudal macho state in central Honduras that is dominated by pistol-packing landowners who run huge estates. One of four children, Zelaya grew up the son of rural privilege. His family, involved in logging and ranching, has been a dominant force in Olancho for decades.

In 1975, when he was 23 years old, his father was jailed for helping army officers torture and murder 14 rural activists, including two priests. Zelaya dropped out of college and went home to Olancho to take care of the family businesses. He visited his incarcerated father often, at times even sleeping in the prison, says Victor Meza, who served as Zelaya’s last interior minister. “That shaped him,” says Meza. Sentenced to 20 years, Zelaya’s father was freed in 1980 in a general amnesty.

No one remembers Zelaya having strong ideological leanings as a young man. He ran his family’s logging operations and eventually became a director of Honduras’ top business organization. He also worked his way up the ranks of the Liberal Party, the country’s oldest and most important political party, serving first as a deputy then as Honduras’ minister of investment. Friends and colleagues say Zelaya is disorganized and has little formal education. But they credit him with acute political instincts. “His background is milking cows, and all of a sudden he’s speaking before the United Nations,” says Meza. Zelaya is a quick study, he adds.

After a failed 2001 run, Zelaya won the presidency in 2005 by a sliver. At his inauguration, he threw away his prepared speech and improvised, making numerous gaffes. “It would be a sign of the way he would run his government,” says Miguel Calix, a Honduran political scientist.

At first, Zelaya wasn’t very ideological and spent a lot of time traveling. He was a big spender. On one notable trip to Washington, he took 40 people along, including his infant granddaughter, whom he handed off to a startled President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony.

Two years into his term, Zelaya reshuffled his government, bringing into his cabinet an influential hard-line cadre of ministers dominated by Patricia Rodas, his foreign minister known as “los Patricios.” Rodas, the daughter of a famous right-wing Liberal party leader, has a reputation as a doctrinaire Marxist from her university days.

The world economy also pushed him leftwards. In 2007, Honduras was hit hard by record high oil prices. The country has no refining capacity and imports all its fuel. As oil prices climbed, Honduras, whose power plants run on fuel, was forced to hike electricity prices and ration power.

At first, Zelaya tried to lower the cost of imports by buying oil products in bulk, but the plan failed. So in 2007, he decreed a cut in fuel prices by 52 U.S. cents per gallon, with the companies and the government splitting the cost. But this move led to fuel shortages as the importers complained about reduced revenues. By mid-2008, the oil companies threatened to stop new investments in Honduras.

Neighboring Nicaragua, which had been getting cut rate fuel from Caracas since 2005 under a program called Petrocaribe, was having no such problems. A Chávez brainchild, Petrocaribe sells Venezuelan oil at market prices but allows its 18 member-countries to finance a part of the oil at low interest rates. As of 2007, Petrocaribe has provided $1.2 billion in financing—a similar amount to the Inter-American Development Bank’s soft loans in that period.

As Zelaya battled the oil companies, Chávez offered cheap fuel. Few in Honduras opposed the country’s entry into the Venezuelan oil pact when the Congress approved it in March 2007. “I pushed hard for Petrocaribe,” says Adolfo Facusse, head of Honduras’ industrialists’ chamber and now a Zelaya opponent. Since then, Petrocaribe has provided the government some $126 million in savings.

Zelaya quickly entered the Venezuelan’s embrace. “They get along very well and trade jokes,” says Meza, the former interior minister. In August, Zelaya joined the ALBA—a nine-nation trade and political pact that Chávez uses to counter U.S. influence in the region. Other ALBA members include Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

At the ALBA ceremony in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya joined Chávez and Nicaragua’s Ortega before thousands of Hondurans, most of whom the government had paid a few dollars to attend. He copied Chávez’ incendiary rhetoric. “Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the center-left, and if anyone dislikes this, we’ll just remove the word ‘center’ and keep the left,” he said.

Chávez didn’t go down well in conservative Honduras, but Zelaya blamed lack of help from the U.S. and others for his left turn. “I’ve been looking for projects from the IADB and Europe, and found a modest response. They don’t have emergency funds and I’ve been obligated to attract new forms of financing like ALBA,” he told Reuters in an interview. Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez, who taught Zelaya as a child, said the president told him he was getting close to Chávez “for the money.”

Zelaya, like Chávez, was soon battling most the country’s institutions. Last year, he refused to send Congress a budget by September 15, as required by the constitution. He blamed the world’s financial crisis for making it impossible to come up with numbers. But with no budget, Honduras couldn’t get new loans from donors like the International Monetary Fund. Julio Raudales, Zelaya’s former deputy minister, says the budgetary black hole cost the country some $400 million over the past year in lost funds.

Zelaya’s behavior greatly disappointed Cardinal Rodríguez, a respected figure and a top candidate to replace the late Pope John Paul II at the time of the pontiff’s death. Cardinal Rodríguez, who worked for nine years to get the international community to forgive $2.6 billion of Honduras’ foreign debt, blames Zelaya for using public money to promote his referendum instead of spending it on the poor. “We were good friends. But he changed drastically,” the Cardinal says. “It was Chávez.”

Zelaya also tried to buy the army’s loyalty, as Chávez has in part done in Venezuela. He more than doubled the military’s budget to $100 million in 2008 and offered the military a multi-million dollar contract to build an airport terminal. But the U.S.-trained military refused the offer.

Others saw Zelaya developing a Chávez-like megalomania. He often commandeered all of the country’s television channels for long speeches. Mirroring Chávez’s fascination with Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar, who tried to unite much of Latin America, Zelaya asked El Salvador’s president if he could borrow the remains of Central America’s 19th century hero, Gen. Francisco Morazán, who is buried in El Salvador, so he could tour Central America with the bones to push regional integration.

There were other quirky moments. Zelaya took much of his cabinet along when he went scuba diving in a tourist development, wearing his Stetson until the last moment before hitting the water. Earlier this year, he skipped a meeting with donor countries to attend a private concert of Mexico’s Los Tigres del Norte, famed for their ballads honoring drug traffickers. Los Tigres serenaded Zelaya at the presidential palace with one of their hits Jefe de Jefes, or Boss of Bosses.

In December, Zelaya stunned the country’s business community when he arbitrarily hiked the country’s minimum wage by 60 percent to $289 a month. While the move was popular, it had a devastating impact on many small businesses. “We had to let go six out of 25 employees,” says Karoly Molinari, who manages her family’s auto rental business. Since then, about 100,000 people—out of a total of about 600,000 Hondurans registered for social security benefits—lost their jobs and were pushed out of Honduras’ formal economy, says Raudales.

But what really set Zelaya on a collision course with most of the establishment was what many Hondurans believed was his drive to perpetuate himself in power by rewriting the constitution to permit re-election—which is forbidden by Honduras’s charter. “He told me: Why can’t I get re-elected? Everybody’s doing it. Why can’t I do it?” says Facusse, the businessman, a former friend.

In the weeks before the referendum, the Supreme Court had ruled the vote illegal: First, only Honduras’ election agency, not the president, can call a referendum. Second, the article in Honduras’ constitution that bars re-election is unchangeable—so much so that even attempting to change it leads to automatic dismissal from public office.

When the military, following court rulings, refused to help distribute the ballots days before the referendum, the president fired the military’s chief of staff, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, and accepted the resignations of the heads of the army, navy and air force and defense minister. “I told the president we could not act against a court order. If we did so, we would be committing a crime,” says Orellana, the former defense minister, a close friend of Zelaya.

Two days later, tensions spiked when Zelaya, defying the courts, led a mob to seize the disputed ballots at an air force base. “That was traumatic for the armed forces,” says Orellana. “At that moment everyone said ‘The man is crazy. We have to get him out.’”

The Supreme Court responded by ordering Zelaya stripped of his office and arrested. The military carried out the order, but feared his arrest would spark violence. So the army sent Zelaya packing, breaking a constitutional article that states a citizen can’t be forcibly exiled. It also led to an image—a president in his pajamas forced out at gunpoint—that promoted the perception of the ouster as a coup.

Orellana, who had resigned days earlier because he believed Zelaya was breaking the law, also believes the soldiers’ action constituted a coup. “It’s the worse thing that could have happened,” he says.

Many others have found a new pride in the country’s refusal to buckle. “Let the world cancel its aid,” says Ramon Custodio, the interim government’s human rights ombudsman. “We will be austere and poor, but with our dignity and on our feet.”





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