The Magazine

Comrades in Arms

The Honduran 'coup' is a victory for constitutionalism and a setback for Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Tegucigalpa

The streets of Honduras's capital have been filled with two groups of marchers and protesters in the weeks since June 28. That was the day that president José Manuel "Mel" Zelaya Rosales was removed from power by an order of the supreme court, arrested by the army, and sent into exile in Costa Rica. The national congress later voted almost unanimously to accept Zelaya's resignation, a resignation Zelaya denies having signed. On most days now, there are demonstrations on behalf of "civil society." Businessmen, women's groups, and church groups assemble, dressed in white. They call for "democracy and peace" and praise their country's institutions for having stood up to a democratically elected president who tried to destroy the constitution and set himself up as a strongman.

There are also demonstrations by the Melistas. These are a combination of trade unionists, young political activists, and poor people. In these protests, most of the participants wear red and excoriate the new government for having plotted a golpe, or coup d'état. The white marches tend to be better attended than the red ones--when he was ousted, Zelaya was the least popular leader in Latin America--but the red marches are having more effect. They are meant to block main roads into the city for hours at a time. They result sometimes in a lot of smashed glass and always in a spectacular efflorescence of graffiti. There are insults to the cardinal, the head of the army, and the current president, Roberto Micheletti, the former president of the congress, whom the red protesters call (following a joke by the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez) "Goriletti" or "Pinocheletti." There are elaborate stenciled caricatures and simple statements like: "Golpistas out!"

Written in big letters on the national stadium on the edge of downtown Tegucigalpa last week was a red slogan that summed up the stakes of the controversy: Nuestro Norte es en el Sur, "Our north is in the south." El Norte has generally meant the United States, the economic, military and social behemoth of the hemisphere. Zelaya's people now look south to Hugo Chávez's Venezuela as their preferred hegemon and model. Chávez, who staged a bloody failed coup in Caracas in 1992, took power democratically in 1998. Through a series of referenda and enabling acts, and the crafty use of Venezuela's oil revenues, he has managed to dismantle the country's democracy from within and alter the constitution in such a way that he can rule until the decade after next.

Chávez has acted abroad with similar resourcefulness. When he arrived in power, he was Fidel Castro's lone declared ally in Latin America. Now he stands at the head of a "Bolivarian" bloc called ALBA, which includes the Bolivia of Evo Morales, the Ecuador of Rafael Correa, the Nicaragua of Daniel Ortega, the Cuba of Raúl Castro, and--from last summer until a few weeks ago--the Honduras of Mel Zelaya. It was the belief that Zelaya was in the course of following Chávez's antidemocratic model, summoning mobs into the streets and trying to hold an illegal election, that prompted the legislature to call for his arrest. Zelaya has not renounced power. His aides have threatened to fight if negotiations do not succeed in regaining the presidency for him. Chávez has mentioned invading Honduras. What is discomfiting to Hondurans--a plurality of whom favor Zelaya's ouster--is that the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the United States all have taken the side of Chávez.

Zelaya comes from a prominent cattle-ranching family in the rural state of Olancho. His father has the reputation of having been a brute during the Honduran dictatorships of the 1970s. When Zelaya came to power, he was considered a sort of Central American George W. Bush. He affects cowboy hats and is reckless, simpático, and homespun. Tegucigalpa, like Washington, favors politicians who are listo--witty, brilliant, quick on their feet--and he is nothing of the sort. He is easily underestimated. "How is it," says one former U.S. diplomat in the region, "that this guy who's not so smart has, even as a lame duck, dominated political discourse, scared the hell out of the economic establishment, and spooked out the whole middle class?"