Honduran Politics and the Chavez Factor

Honduran Politics and the Chavez Factor

Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America expert, says the apparent resolution of the Honduran political crisis--triggered in part by concerns over Hugo Chavez’s influence--marks a triumph for Obama administration diplomacy.  

October 30, 2009 5:40 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Christoper Sabatini, an expert on Latin America, says the apparent resolution to the four-month political crisis in Honduras amounts to a "breakthrough" for the Obama administration, whose officials helped forge a compromise. A deal that would allow for the Honduran Congress to restore Manuel Zelaya to the presidency for three more months would overcome what Sabatini called "tragic silliness" displayed by the two sides in the conflict. Sabatini says Zelaya’s opportunism, which caused him to seek an alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and fears about a Chavez-inspired system in Honduras contributed to the prolongation of the political crisis.

There seems to have been a breakthrough in the Honduran political stalemate stemming from the June 28 coup d’état in which President Manuel Zelaya was forced to leave the country. Can you summarize how this deal was worked out?

It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride and hasn’t lacked for colorful characters and very colorful moments. Basically, most people awoke on the morning of June 28 to realize that President Zelaya--who had changed course halfway through his term and become an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a member of the Bolivarian Alliance that Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro lead--had been removed in the dead of night in his pajamas at gunpoint by army troops and had been put on a plane and taken to Costa Rica. This immediately met with the condemnation of the international community as a coup d’état. But when people started to look a little more deeply at all that had happened, Zelaya clearly had overstepped the constitutional boundaries of his own power, had been pushing for reelection [when the constitution forbids this], and before that what was becoming apparent was an institutional train-wreck in Honduras between the Congress and Zelaya.

And the issue of the reelection was that he is barred from reelection by the Constitution?

Precisely, although he was only asking for a referendum to decide on whether there should be constitutional plebiscite about reelection. What happened afterward was a certain amount of revisionism. The OAS [the Organization of American States] had failed to act before the coup d’état and had therefore lost a lot of credibility with the people who supported the coup d’état and the de facto president who came in power as a result, Roberto Micheletti. The OAS basically lost their authority to be able to mediate, and lost even more over time. What also happened was the Micheletti government mobilized, if you will, old Bush administration appointees and some lobbyists in Washington to try to defend the coup as constitutional. The coup probably could have been easily resolved because the international community immediately condemned it; the world suspended loans to the Honduras government; the OAS kicked the Honduran de facto government out; the UN declared its opposition to it. It seemed it could have been easily resolved simply by returning a defanged President Zelaya to power and then just heading into the presidential elections, already scheduled for November 29, in which President Zelaya couldn’t run.

So why did it not happen?

For reasons having to do really with the fear of Hondurans of a sort of Chavez-inspired system, the coup leaders dug in their heels and there was no negotiation. And what happened later was a series of what I call, "tragic silliness." The Micheletti government refused to budge and refused to listen. The Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, attempted to mediate and couldn’t.

The Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias, got involved too.

Arias developed what was called the San Jose Accords, which was a twelve-point plan that included the restoration of Zelaya but the negotiations broke down. The de facto government refused to accept it. So the OAS was proved to be impotent and the Oscar Arias plan couldn’t work, mostly because of the intransigence of the Honduran de facto government. So what Zelaya did in another bizarre twist was he sneaked across the border about a month ago and holed himself up in the Brazilian embassy, which then suddenly pitted the Brazilian government against the Micheletti de facto government.

[T]he United States had staked out its demand to roll back the coup that took place June 28. If they had not succeeded in this it would have been in many ways a real negative mark on their record.

So what brought the crisis to an end?

A delegation of high-level U.S. diplomats--Dan Restrepo [senior director for the Western Hemisphere] from the NSC [National Security Council], Craig Kelly [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs] from the State Department and the acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Tom Shannon--went there, and it looks now that they may have resolved the issue of how to break this impasse and get this country to the November 29 elections so they can be accepted by the international community.

Is this a major achievement for the Obama administration?

This has been a breakthrough. This would have been a blight on its early record if they could not have resolved this. And it’s not formally resolved yet; the agreement is that the Honduran Congress has to agree to the restitution of Zelaya. That effectively takes it out of Micheletti’s hands; he had been really one of the stumbling blocks on this, and it certainly does move the process forward. And in a world in which this administration was facing difficulty in negotiations with Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Honduras was really small chump change. It’s a small country; it has been really pretty much a client of the United States in terms of our military relationship, and our trade relationship (over half of their exports go to the United States). The remittances from immigrants in the United States can account for 25 percent of their GDP. This is a very small country that’s very closely tied to the United States, and the United States had staked out its demand to roll back the coup that took place June 28. If they had not succeeded in this, it would have been in many ways a real negative mark on their record.

I know that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was so pleased about it she issued a statement while she was in Pakistan saying that this was "an historic agreement." I assume she wouldn’t have issued the statement if she didn’t feel the Honduras Congress had signaled it would support this.

That’s right. What it does is, it really moves it forward because it takes the crisis out of the hands of two people--Zelaya and Micheletti--neither of whom has shown himself to be a remarkable negotiator or remarkably flexible, or trustworthy. This indicates that it moves past those two leaders and looks to the future. That in itself is a success.

Why would someone like Zelaya, who from everything I’ve read was a conservative rancher, all of the sudden become a Hugo Chavez supporter to the point where he wanted to emulate Chavez’ referendums for staying in power?

It was pure pragmatism on his part, pure opportunism. Zelaya comes from a prominent cattle-ranching family. He’s well-known as wearing a white cowboy hat, and he had been pretty much been a centrist conservative from a landed family. He’s not ideological; he is in many ways an opportunistic demagogue and what Chavez represented to him was a plan for sustaining himself in power. And halfway through his term, what he did was sort of jettison his ties with the liberal party, which is primarily a conservative party in Honduras, and embrace Hugo Chavez and his so-called ALBA coalition.

And what did Zelaya think he would gain?

Primarily what this meant was oil revenue; Chavez is very much a grand dispenser of patronage of his oil revenue, so it meant Zelaya could get on the gravy train. It also gave Zelaya a potential plan to be able to consolidate his own authority and extend himself in power in Honduras--maybe not to immediate reelection, but election farther down the road--and it also allowed him to tap more popular groups, primarily the teachers unions and peasant organizations. But one of the things that it’s important to point out is that he’s not an ideological type. And conservatives in the United States have tried to portray him as a "Chavista." The truth is he was really just an opportunist and was really using this for his own self-promotion.

Who’s the favorite to win the election?

The conservative candidate, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, is favored to win. Elvin Santos is the liberal candidate, and is running second. Santos had been vice president to Zelaya, but quit over Zelaya’s ties to Chavez.

So Zelaya’s support came from whatever leftists there are in Honduras-the unions, the peasant groups?

Honduras doesn’t have a long tradition of leftism, and it doesn’t have a very strong base of grassroots activism either in the peasant organizations or even labor unions. The strongest labor union is the teacher’s union. It’s never had a large manufacturing sector. It’s never really had--even during the civil wars of the 1980s in Central America--a large guerrilla insurgency presence, nor did it even have a very strong leftist party. Honduran politics have been dominated by two parties: the liberals and conservatives. There is no real deep, ideological cleavage between those two parties.

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