// archives

Honduras

This tag is associated with 3 posts

Zelaya’s Game II

23 October 2009

Zelaya’s Game II

 By Gwynne Dyer

If you start from the assumption that the strategy of Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, is to destroy the existing constitutional order in the country, then you must admit that he is making good progress. Negotiations with the interim government that replaced him have broken down, and there is every likelihood that the elections scheduled for next month will not be recognised by the rest of the world. If that happens, he wins.

Of course, this is not the usual narrative of the Zelaya drama, in which he is portrayed as the innocent victim of a nefarious plot by evil right-wing forces. That narrative recognises that he was sailing under false colours when he won the presidential nomination of the Liberal Party four years ago, only revealing that he was far to the left of his party after he had won the election. But it does not consider what that meant for his time in office.

“The story so far” in standard media accounts acknowledges that Zelaya took the country’s foreign policy leftwards, reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba after 47 years and signing a treaty with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that yielded cut-price oil for Honduras. It only rarely mentions that he failed to build a strong base of popular support among the Honduran poor, since his own party in Congress disowned him and the Honduran presidency has little direct influence over economic affairs.

And Zelaya’s actual removal from power is generally treated as a classic Latin American coup, in which a reforming leader is overthrown by an army in the service of the rich whose power he threatens. Since the Honduran army obeys the Congress and the courts, both of which are very protective of the interests of the rich, there is a bit of truth in that. What’s missing is the fact that it was all done quite legally – and the probability that Zelaya was looking for a confrontation.

Consider Zelaya’s position last spring. He had made some dramatic gestures on the international front but had accomplished almost nothing domestically, and the polls put his popular support at around 25 percent. His presidential term was ending in less than a year, and his own party was unwilling to re-nominate him. In any case, the Honduran constitution does not permit presidents to seek a second term. His One Big Chance to change Honduran society had come and gone. What was he to do?

What he did, in fact, was to start talking about changing the constitution to remove the one-term limit. On the face of it that made no sense at all, since a) he still wouldn’t be re-nominated by the Liberal Party, and b) the constitution couldn’t possibly be changed fast enough to let him run for president again this November. Are we to assume that he had suddenly developed a selfless interest in constitutional law? Probably not.

We would be fairly safe in assuming that Zelaya is a clever man, and that his conservative opponents in the mainstream parties, the courts and the army, pickled in the arrogance that comes with long and unchallenged power, were not very alert. So when Zelaya started talking about changing the constitution, they leaped to the (utterly stupid) conclusion that he was hoping to win a second presidential term.

Ten seconds’ serious thought would have told them that his game had to be deeper than that, but they fell into his trap. All they really needed to do was wait him out. Congress could censure him, the courts would set aside any decrees he issued, and the army would refuse to assist in any referendum he tried to hold. You can’t change the Honduran constitution by a referendum anyway – and in six months Zelaya would be gone.

Instead, Congress voted almost unanimously to remove Zelaya from the presidency, the Supreme Court agreed, and the army was ordered to act. That may not have been the precise response that Zelaya was hoping to provoke, because it was even stupider than you would normally expect from those people, but it was certainly along the right lines, and he knew he could work with it.

By the middle of this year, Zelaya would have realised that his only hope of pursuing his radical political goals was to bring the entire constitutional order of Honduras into question. He couldn’t do that alone, but he might manage to fool his opponents into doing it themselves. And he did.

They expelled him in June but he slipped back into the country in September. For the past month he has been sheltering in the Brazilian embassy and negotiating as an equal with the authorities who removed him from power. Their best bet at this point would be to restore him to the presidency and let him serve out the remainder of his term, for whoever is elected in the November election will be much more to their taste, and Zelaya would be gone by January. But they are still stupid.

They have broken off talks with Zelaya, and the result will be that nobody outside the country will recognise the legitimacy of the November elections. The crisis will continue long past January, and every month the economic situation will become more desperate. It is not clear that Zelaya will ultimately emerge as the winner in this confrontation, but he has succeeded in creating the conditions in which he COULD win.

____________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The story…confrontation”)

Zelaya’s Game

22 September 2009

Zelaya’s Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Let us suppose that Manuel Zelaya, the ousted former president of Honduras, is an intelligent man with a good understanding of how politics works. Then the question is: what is his game? Because he started all this.

He was removed from office three months ago in circumstances of doubtful legality. Both the Supreme Court and the Congress had demanded his removal for “repeated violations of the constitution and the law,” but the way it was done – woken up by soldiers and hustled out of the country by plane – smelled more like an old-fashioned military coup.

A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti, the speaker of Congress, was sworn in as interim president, and everybody promised that normal democratic service would be fully restored after the elections due on 29 November. But every non-Honduran with access to a microphone took up Zelaya’s cause, from the Organisation of American States to the US State Department, and he emerged as a fully-fledged democratic martyr.

The left-wing leaders who have proliferated across Latin America in recent years were particularly supportive of Zelaya. Despite Brazilian president Luiz Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva’s firm denials, the suspicion lingers that Zelaya’s sudden re-appearance inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Monday did not come as a complete surprise to the Brazilians.

Zelaya says he hiked in from the border, dodging border guards and military checkpoints, and that is probably true. But he must have had a plan for what he would do when he reached the Honduran capital to avoid arrest (his opponents have brought corruption charges against him), and those plans probably involved the Brazilian embassy from the start.

Now he is holed up there, surrounded by the Honduran army. It’s the perfect scene for a media watch that puts enormous pressure on Zelaya’s opponents to make concessions – or alternatively, the ideal location for a massacre of his supporters by trigger-happy soldiers, in which case popular opinion shifts to Zelaya’s side and he returns triumphantly to power.

Or at least, that is probably his plan. Am I being too cynical? Okay, let’s consider the evidence.

Manuel Zelaya was in the closet before he became president. He secured the nomination of the Liberal Party, a slightly left-of-centre party which has traditionally alternated in power with the right-wing National Party, and he narrowly won the presidency in the 2006 election. But it was only after he was safely in the presidential mansion that he dropped the mask and started moving Honduras sharply left.

He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1962, and signed up for Petrocaribe, the agreement by which oil-rich Venezuela sells oil to poorer countries in the region at a reduced price. He promised to join Alba, the Venezuelan-backed alternative to the free trade agreements backed by the United States. He even refused to accept an American ambassador for a time.

But he did not achieve much in practice for the Honduran poor, and he failed to build mass support for his policies. Opinion polls this year put his popular approval at only 25 percent.

Moreover, he was running out of time, since the Honduran 0Aconstitution only allows presidents one term in office and his term ended this year. So he did something peculiar: he announced that there would be a non-binding referendum on creating a constituent assembly to change the constitution and allow presidents a second term.

It was peculiar because he had no legal right to hold such a referendum, nor does the Honduran constitution allow a constituent assembly to be elected for such a purpose. Even if the illegality of the process was ignored, there was no chance that it could all happen in time to let him run for a second term in the November election. In any case, his own party would refuse to re-nominate him. So what was his game?

Zelaya’s only chance of holding on to power was to create a crisis that would sweep all of those considerations aside. He pressed ahead with his plans for a referendum last June even after the Supreme Court declared it illegal. When the army refused to assist in the referendum, he fired the commander-in-chief. So the Congressional and judicial authorities moved against him, although they would have been wiser just to wait him out.

Zelaya may not have foreseen the precise manner of his removal from office, but he was clearly seeking a confrontation that would destabilise the existing constitutional order. It was his only chance of staying in power.

He’s halfway there. His dramatic return to the country has created semi-siege conditions in the capital, and it’s unlikely that the November elections can go ahead in the circumstances. That already improves his prospects, because it drives the country beyond the usual constitutional procedures.

Zelaya has already painted himself as the democratically elected victim of a military coup, and as such he enjoys unprecedented foreign support. If his domestic opponents are stupid enough to use force, he could actually win. Judging by their past performance, they may be that stupid.

__________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Zelaya…start”); and (“He restored…time”)

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.”

____________________________________

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