Why Honduras matters to Chavez
Author: Will Grant
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/07/2009
As the situation unfolds at pace in Honduras, state
television in Venezuela is not letting up on its coverage.
It interviewed President Manuel Zelaya
live from his airplane as he tried to return to Honduras on Sunday and repeated
hourly footage of the clashes between security forces and pro-Zelaya demonstrators outside the airport.
The around-the-clock focus points to how closely the
Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, and his supporters are following events in
Tegucigalpa and how keen they are to see Mr Zelaya
back in office.
The two leaders are allies, although Mr Chavez did not, as
some have suggested, fund Mr Zelaya’s election
In fact, the two had not met until after Mr Zelaya came to power in 2005 on a very different platform
to the left-wing, populist policies of Mr Chavez.
“ I am sure President Chavez is
playing a leading role in the decisions being taken by the Zelaya
advisers at this sensitive time ”
Demetrio Boersner, Venezuelan
international relations professor
Yet over the past four years, President Zelaya
has moved closer to Mr Chavez and something of the flamboyant style of the
Venezuelan leader may have rubbed off on the former landowner.
Now, as the interim government in Honduras tries to brave
the diplomatic storm around it, the success or failure of the military-backed
coup is being considered by some as a reflection on the wider appeal of Mr
Chavez’s political project.
In part, the overthrow was sparked by proposals to consider
changing the constitution.
Like Mr Chavez before him, Mr Zelaya
was talking about holding a referendum to see if there was popular support to
change the constitution.
His opponents say it was the first step in trying to remove
the current limit of a single term in office.
He says the consultation was non-binding and he was just
trying to gauge public opinion.
Earlier this year, Hugo Chavez successfully campaigned to
amend the Venezuelan constitution to end term limits on elected officials, so
paving the way for him to stand again when his current term ends in 2012.
But the support that Mr Chavez was able to muster for change
was simply lacking in Honduras.
Powerful figures in the Honduran Congress and judiciary
opposed the move and whereas Mr Chavez continues to command popularity ratings
of more than 50% even after a decade in office, support for Mr Zelaya is far more mixed.
Some Hondurans appear to oppose the coup on the grounds that
they see it as illegal, and are worried that it could be harmful to Honduras –
not because they particularly liked Mr Zelaya. Others
are openly happy to see him gone.
For Mr Chavez, the Honduran leader has proved an important
ally since he came office.
Alongside Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Manuel Zelaya provided an important Central American arm of two
major Chavez initiatives – the group of nations known as the Bolivarian
Alternative for the Americas (Alba) – and PetroCaribe,
both regional trade groups in which Venezuela provides oil at preferential
Mr Zelaya was quick too to back Mr
Chavez’s rhetoric on the United States and by the end of the Bush
administration had become a vocal critic of the US in what was traditionally
viewed by Washington as its “backyard”.
“Chavez embraces anyone who he thinks may be useful to
his cause,” says Demetrio Boersner, professor of
international relations at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and a
“Ever since Zelaya
showed signs of wanting to move in that political direction, Mr Chavez has been
encouraging him at every turn.
“I also have no doubt that there is a constant dialogue
between the two men and I am sure President Chavez is playing a leading role in
the decisions being taken by the Zelaya advisers at
this sensitive time.”
Economically, Honduras is not a huge drain on Venezuela. It
accounts for only a small fraction of the 100,000 barrels of oil a day which
Venezuela exports to Alba member states, with the majority destined for Cuba.
Trade relations are minimal and Honduras is far more reliant
on remittances from the United States than it is on Mr Chavez’s petro-dollars.
Nevertheless, President Chavez has already indicated that
oil to Honduras will be suspended in a bid to force out the interim government
led by Roberto Micheletti.
Politically, however, the small Central American nation has
become increasingly important to the Venezuelan leader.
“This is a coup against Venezuela!” President
Chavez said in the hours after Mr Zelaya was forced
on to a plane at gunpoint and flown to Costa Rica.
“It must not be permitted,” he said, before adding
that he would do whatever it takes to teach the coup leaders a lesson.
Mr Chavez has some experience of coups. He staged an
unsuccessful one in 1992 in an effort to remove the then president Carlos
Andres Perez from power.
And he was the subject of an attempted coup in 2002 which
saw him briefly ousted from office before popular protests demanded his
reinstatement by loyal members of the military.
In the case of Mr Chavez, the entire episode was over within
48 hours. In Honduras, a week has already passed, and there is little sign of
Mr Zelaya returning to power for the time being.
The strange alliance of US President Barack Obama, the
Organisation of American States (OAS) and President Chavez is tightening the
screws on Roberto Micheletti via diplomatic and
The coup leaders are refusing to budge, and insist Mr Zelaya’s return to the presidency is non-negotiable.
Pressure is growing on President Obama to withhold US aid to
Honduras and force Mr Micheletti and his supporters
from the presidential palace.
President Chavez, for one, is hoping that their days are