Saturday, July 25, 2009

Behind the Honduran Mutiny

A supporter of Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya waved a Honduran flag in Tegucigalpa Thursday.


Yesterday, Hugo's friend and ally stepped onto Honduran soil, and spoke of arriving in peace. Secretary Clinton called his actions "reckless."

a close look at Mr. Zelaya's time in office reveals a strongly antidemocratic streak. He placed himself in a growing cadre of elected Latin presidents who have tried to stay in power past their designated time to carry out a populist-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, but created deep divisions in their societies by concentrating power in their own hands and increasing government control over the economy, media and other sectors.

Interesting how populists are anti-democratic; they embody the revolution, not the people.

The crisis has put the Obama administration in a difficult spot. Mindful of past U.S. support of coups in Latin America, it condemned the ouster and has led efforts to find a negotiated solution. But its insistence Mr. Zelaya return to power has angered many middle-class Hondurans, who feel the ouster defended the country's institutions from a Chávez-style power grab.

Perfect illustation of a quandary ("predicament: a situation from which extrication is difficult especially an unpleasant or trying one"). Supporting his ouster would have led to much more blustering than followed that very ouster. Opposing it has made many Hondurans very unhappy.

"This is a showdown which will determine if the Chavista model triumphs or not," says Moises Starkman, who advised Mr. Zelaya on special projects and now works for the interim government in the same capacity.

Perfect opportunity to undermine the Chávista model, a fraudulent enterprise that ensconces leaders in power with the veneer of populism hiding their control. Chávez senses, even understands, that.

Little in Mr. Zelaya's background suggested he would become an international symbol of a democratically elected leader forced from office. Mr. Zelaya is a product of Olancho, a violent, macho state in central Honduras that is dominated by pistol-packing landowners who run huge estates. His family, involved in logging and ranching, has been one of the dominant forces in Olancho for decades.

Correa has a handful of college degrees (an MA in Economics from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium; an MS in Economics, and a PhD in Economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Chávez was a career military officer; Ortega was born into a middle-class family that oposed Somoza, and he became a Sandinista leader; Morales grew up herding llamas. Only Zelaya really has a moneyed past, even if in a countryside.

After two years, Zelaya moved left, appointing leftists to his cabinet. In his first year, Mr. Zelaya didn't seem very ideological and spent a lot of time traveling. He was a big spender. On one notable trip to Washington, he took along a large group, including family members. He handed off his infant granddaughter to a startled President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony.

High oil prices in 2007 hurt Honduras. The nation has no refining or storage capacities, and all of its fuel is imported: Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and the local Dipsa -- control the market, importing the fuel directly and distributing it through their own service stations.

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

Petrocaribe: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Suriname, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Curiously, both the IADB and Petrocaribe loan money for the purchase of oil.

Mr. Zelaya, who at first had kept his distance from Mr. Chávez, was quickly ensconced in the Venezuelan's tight embrace. He soon copied the Venezuelan's inflammatory rhetoric. In August, Mr. Zelaya joined the ALBA -- a nine-nation trade and political pact that Mr. Chávez designed to counter U.S. influence in the region. Its other members include Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. (Dominica and Bolivia also belong.)

Mr. Chávez didn't go down well in deeply conservative Honduras. "Any Honduran who is against joining ALBA is either an idiot or a traitor," the Venezuelan shouted to the crowds at the ALBA event, where he gave Mr. Zelaya a new nickname: "Comandante Cowboy."

Nice of Chávez to interfere.

former defense minister Edmundo Orellana, a close friend of Mr. Zelaya, who refused to go along with the president ... resigned over the issue ... also believes the soldiers' action in exiling Mr. Zelaya constituted a coup. "It's the worse thing that could have happened," he says.

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