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Politics

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

29 June 2009

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

By Gwynne Dyer

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has declared that any attack on his country’s embassy in Honduras will lead to war between the two nations, and I can’t help wishing that the Hondurans would call his bluff. The Venezeluan blowhard is getting tiresome.

In the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, thirty years ago, Clint Eastwood achieved immortality with a single line. Pointing a very large pistol at an evil-doer (as George W. Bush might have put it), he addresses the miscreant, who is thinking about reaching for his own gun, as follows: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Hugo Chavez is more a well-meaning idiot than an evil-doer, but the question is the same: will he really go for his gun? The answer is no. He’s not a complete idiot, and his threats to attack other Latin American countries whose behaviour offends him (the most recent was Colombia, last year) always fade away after a while.

What provoked Chavez’s threat was the removal of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had become Chavez’s close ally. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military, bundled into a plane and flown to Costa Rica on 28 June.

Elected to a single term as president in 2006, Zelaya astonished friend and foe alike by turning out to be not the centre-right, business-friendly politician he had seemed. Instead, he began moving steadily to the left in his domestic policies, and linked Honduras diplomatically with the other socialist governments in Latin America.

There is no doubt that he caused deep annoyance to the conservative elite who have traditionally dominated Honduran affairs, but they made no move to overthrow him. Why bother? The constitution limits Honduran presidents to one four-year term in office, and Zelaya’s term comes to an end next January.

No other leftist candidate was likely to win the presidential election that is due in November: recent opinion polls suggested that Zelaya’s support nationally is down to around 30 percent. Even Zelaya’s own party was unlikely to nominate another leftist as his successor, and many of its members no longer supported him. So all the major political forces were content to wait for the clock to run out on him — until he started trying to change the constitution.

Zelaya’s bright idea was to end the one-term limit so he could run for president again himself. It’s exactly the same tactic that Chavez has used in Venezuela to prolong his rule indefinitely (he now talks about being in power until 2030), and Zelaya believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could make it work for him in Honduras. So he set about organising a referendum on the subject. It was scheduled for last Sunday.

Alas, the president of Honduras does not have the right to organize a referendum all by himself, and the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to stop. Congress also condemned the manoeuvre, but Zelaya plowed ahead regardless. When the army, obedient to the Supreme Court’s orders, refused to help Zelaya run the referendum, he fired the army’s commanding general and got his own party activists to distribute the ballot boxes.

At that point, Congress voted to remove Zelaya because of his “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions,” and the Supreme Court ordered the army to intervene and arrest the president. It was a mistake to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica, as that made it look like a traditional Central American coup, but apart from that everything was done within the law.

The speaker of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who has taken over until the November elections, insists that he has become interim president “as the result of an absolutely legal transition process.” Chavez and his Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Cuban allies claim it’s a military coup, and insist that the United States is behind it.

Washington, which wasn’t paying much attention until last Sunday, has been bounced into backing Zelaya too, as has the Organisation of American States, whose secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has promised to accompany Zelaya in a grand return to Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the events in Honduras as a coup, and for all we know she might accompany Zelaya too.

If Chavez decided to go along too, they would have enough people for a game of celebrity bridge, but all this posturing won’t change anything. It might be different if the next Honduran election were years away and there was time for diplomatic and economic pressures to wear the legitimate Honduran authorities down, but it’s only five months until the 29th of November.

So long as that election is conducted properly, other countries will have no grounds to reject its outcome — and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from running again. End of story.

Unless Chavez actually attacks Honduras, that is, but it is a long way from Venezuela and Chavez’s forces are not really equipped or trained for amphibious assaults or long-range air-drops. You can almost hear the Honduran soldiers muttering “Go ahead, make my day.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“In the first…for awhile”)