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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Political parties are not very ideological in Honduras. Zelaya came to power as a centrist member of the Liberal party, which has dominated Honduran politics since the end of the Cold War. Zelaya had always been preoccupied with the poor, who are numerous in Honduras, and had done a lot of good things for them. As head of the government social-services agency under two Liberal governments, he built latrines, health centers, and schools, not to mention a network of enthusiasts. By the time he got to power he was skilled at setting up town hall meetings in local villages and using local radio effectively. He made school lunch programs and mobile clinics a priority. He raised the minimum wage from $170 to $270 a month. (Which probably drove up unemployment, but that is a different argument.)

His government was also credibly alleged to be corrupt. The national budget was supposed to be passed by September 2008, but that never happened. So the Zelaya government has worked in cash. Starting in 2007, certain federal aid to municipalities--including millions meant to be channeled through a national program called the Reduction of Poverty Strategy--stopped coming, according to Mayor Manuel Torres of Valle de Angeles. Since Zelaya's departure, the new government has released bank videotapes showing his top aide, Enrique Flores Lanza, removing money, allegedly 40 million lempiras ($2 million), from the Central Bank on a little rolling cart. Transparency International ranks Honduras 126th of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index.

Although some diplomats were alarmed at Zelaya's seeming obsession with getting the United States to vacate its air base at Palmerola (an obsession he shared with Hugo Chávez), no one paid much attention to him for his first two years in power. But in 2007 he suddenly, as one Honduran journalist put it, became the president "of some, not all, Hondurans." He began to attack the rich, the Organization of American States, and the "Empire" to the north. Most people attributed his new stridency to the sway of two people. First was Patricia Rodas Baca, the brilliant and beautiful leftist adviser whom Zelaya would make his foreign minister. Rodas, the daughter of a revered Liberal statesman, had spent much of her youth in Sandinista Nicaragua and part of her education in Cuba. She helped draw Zelaya into a closer attachment to his second big influence, Hugo Chávez.

In the spring of 2008, Zelaya brought Honduras into PetroCaribe, a deal whereby Chávez offers deep discounts and generous financing for the oil and gas Venezuela exports. That was Chávez's foot in the door, and his influence grew preponderant almost overnight. Venezuela now holds more than a third of Honduras's foreign debt. In August 2008, Zelaya proposed bringing Honduras into ALBA, Chávez's "alternative" to U.S. trade pacts. What is curious about this is that Honduras was able to negotiate and sign this agreement without ever being worried that its trade relations with the United States under the Central American Free Trade Agreement would be jeopardized. Apparently the Bush administration was done by that point with demanding answers to the question of whether you're with us or against us.

ALBA is a highly ideological organization. "It wasn't a free-trade agreement, with norms and that sort of thing," one Tegucigalpa businesswoman told me. "It was a devil's pact with Venezuela." A lot of strange stuff came up in negotiations that Hondurans did not understand--mentions of military cooperation, for instance, although that part was not ratified. Unease over the agreement led the National party, Honduras's main opposition party, to boycott the vote on ratifying the ALBA treaty. But the Liberals managed to squeak it through. They were led by Micheletti, who--just to let you see how complicated the political arrangements are--was one of Zelaya's close political allies at the time. Martha Lorena Casco, a Liberal who had campaigned with Zelaya in 2005 and is now a member of Micheletti's government, was the only member of her party to vote against it. She said, "ALBA is Chávez and Chávez is ALBA."