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One week after coup, deadlock and dread in Honduras

Venezuela's Chavez looms large in Honduran crisis
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become a key figure in the crisis surrounding the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, which has divided the Central American nation. The Venezuelan leader, considered an ideological ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has featured prominently at demonstrations in the wake of Zelaya's overthrow -- invoked by some as an example and by others as a threat. "We are not Venezuela. We don't want to be Cuba," read some of the placards held by demonstrators who oppose the ousted president. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Venezuelan president has taken a firm stance, calling on Latin America to teach a lesson the new Honduran government "a lesson."

And when the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Washington on Saturday to consider whether to suspend Honduras, Chavez was the only leader to explicitly call for an OAS military intervention. "Chavez himself created this crisis," Honduran lawmaker Ramon Velasquez told AFP. The Christian-Democrat opposition member said the alliance between Chavez and Zelaya led to the Honduran leader's overthrow. According to Velasquez, the Honduran crisis has put in play "the future of democracy in Latin America." "Either we oppose external intervention coming from Chavez, or we will end up being one of the nations that has succumbed to populism," he said.

Zelaya, a former wood industry magnate, was elected in 2006 as a conservative. But he ended up bringing Honduras into the leftist Bolivarian Alternative for the Americans (ALBA) -- a regional grouping founded by Chavez and Castro. Zelaya then tried to follow in the footsteps of fellow ALBA leaders Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa by seeking to overcome constitutional term limits. The Honduran president was sent into exile by the military just hours ahead of a vote that was intended to clear the way for him to run for office again. Zelaya's supporters say the orchestrators of the coup are using Chavez as a pretext. "For sure, Chavez is a part of this, but we can also say that behind all this there is a campaign to generate fear and panic," said leftist lawmaker Doris Guttierez. Zelaya's decision to bring Honduras into ALBA won him new popularity among some constituents, who also oppose his overthrow. Chavez began giving Honduras oil and financial aid after it joined ALBA, allowing Zelaya to launch social programs targeting the country's poor, who make up many of the nation's eight million inhabitants. The aid from Venezuela was cut off in the wake of Zelaya's overthrow.

"There is an aggressive political position against Chavez's presence and many programs that benefit the poor are being shut down on the pretext that they are imported from Venezuela," said Guttierez. The interest shown by Chavez -- a self-proclaimed anti-imperialist -- in Honduras has symbolic value. The Central American nation has housed American military base since the 1980s, when US military advisors helped fight Latin American leftists. "Chavez will exploit to the maximum what has happened in Honduras," according to Colombian political scientist Vicente Torrijos, a professor at Bogota's Rosario University. According to Torrijos, the situation created by the political crisis and the nearly unanimous support for Zelaya coming from the international community has given Chavez "hope that the continent will ultimately adopt his model."

by Staff Writers
Tegucigalpa (AFP) July 5, 2009
A week after Central America's first coup in more than a quarter of a century, tensions were at breaking point in the Central American nation as ousted President Manuel Zelaya planned to return.

The country's interim leaders were more defiant than ever in the face of growing isolation and public anger, apparently set on staying put until November elections despite freezes in aid, withdrawn foreign ambassadors and temporary trade blockages.

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras late Saturday, in the first such move since the exclusion of Cuba in 1962, adding to the growing international pressure.

"Whether the coup government holds out will depend largely on the response of the international community -- the government could not withstand real economic sanctions, for example," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Despite previous tensions over Zelaya's bid to change the constitution, many were taken by surprise when soldiers actually packed him on a plane last Sunday, believing that Central America had turned a page on its painful past of bloody US-backed coups.

The move sparked a wave of outrage, uniting countries from its new leftist ally Venezuela to its traditional economic and military backer the United States.

The interim government insisted that the president had violated the law by attempting to go ahead with a referendum last Sunday after the Supreme Court ruled against it.

But they failed to convince foreign governments that the coup was a correct, constitutional succession.

"I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections," US President Barack Obama said afterwards.

For decades Honduras has been governed by a group of wealthy families, to which Zelaya belongs.

But after Zelaya's election on a center-right platform in 2005, he took a sharp turn to the left -- leading the impoverished nation closer to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

It was a move that included preferential oil deals.

Zelaya's campaign to rewrite the constitution sparked concern that he would follow Chavez's lead and try to remove term limits.

"He only had seven months to go so the move to oust him demonstrates a certain amount of desperation on the part of a political elite in Honduras," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin America analyst from Pomona College in California.

Many say the ruling elite miscalculated how far the coup would polarize their own country.

"No matter who wins the standoff, politics will not be the same, and in the long run I think that will undermine the old system," said Dan Hellinger, professor of political science at Webster University in the United States.

The attempt to change the constitution was the latest in a string of similar efforts across Latin America.

"In Ecuador, Bolivia, Honduras, they are ... in a situation where the constitution creates institutional obstacles to sweeping away the old political class and removing an obstacle to change," Hellinger said.

"But in the Honduras case, we are dealing with a president who was not elected on a platform of change -- unlike in these other cases."

The interim's government's criticism of Zelaya's alleged abuses of power has been drowned out by international concern at the coup.

The coup leaders themselves have been accused of rights abuses since they took over, including detentions, rights-restricting curfews and media blackouts.

The continent's leftists are firmly behind Zelaya -- with Chavez turning off oil supplies and some leaders apparently planning to return to Honduras with him for an expected showdown.

"Zelaya's return aims to heighten internal contradictions and might force a more concrete response from the US," Tinker Salas said.

Many eyes were on the United States, to see if it would step up the pressure with an economic freeze on the banana and coffee exporting country.

"Although the Obama administration has now condemned the coup, they do not support the "immediate and unconditional return" of President Zelaya in the same way that the rest of the hemisphere does. This encourages the coup government to hold out," Weisbrot said.

earlier related report
Honduras suspended from OAS following coup
The Organization of American States late Saturday suspended Honduras from its ranks in reaction to last week's military coup that ousted elected President Manuel Zelaya.

Zelaya, who was exiled by the coup leaders, has expressed his intention to return to his home country Sunday.

Thirty-three out of 34 members of the pan-American body, gathered here for an extraordinary session of its General Assembly, voted in favor of the suspension.

The assembly acted on the basis of Article 21 of the OAS Charter that gives member-nations the right to suspend membership of a country in case of an "unconstitutional interruption of democratic order" and when "efforts to address the situation through diplomatic means have failed."

The article was used by the organization for the first time since 1962, when Cuba was suspended from the OAS following its joining the Soviet bloc.

The resolution adopted by the General Assembly urges OAS member-nations as well as international organizations "to review their relations with Honduras." At the same time, it asks Honduran coup leaders to respect human rights.

The measure was recommended earlier Saturday by OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, who said that "no other alternative existed" but to exclude Honduras over its refusal to reinstate Zelaya.

Throwing his backing behind the beleaguered Honduran leader, Insulza said "the de facto authorities in Tegucigalpa are not disposed to restore Zelaya."

Insulza spoke after returning from a brief trip to Honduras on Friday during which he sought -- in vain -- to persuade the interim government to bring Zelaya back to power, and warned of increasing tension and polarization.

Zelaya, who was also in Washington, said he was "optimistic" on the eve of his planned return to Honduras.

"I am very optimistic because everyone has repudiated and rejected these acts" Zelaya said, referring to the military-backed coup.

But he insisted his country lived "under a regime of terror."

Meanwhile, analysts argued international pressure would be key in determining Honduras' future.

"Whether the coup government holds out will depend largely on the response of the international community -- the government could not withstand real economic sanctions, for example," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Thousands of Zelaya's supporters and opponents have demonstrated daily since the president was bundled away to Costa Rica last Sunday, and brief clashes have broken out between the army and protesters.

It was unclear exactly how many people had been injured and detained, amid growing protests from international rights groups.

Pro-Zelaya supporters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa once again on Saturday, including some who said they had traveled five days to reach the capital.

Hundreds gathered briefly around the international airport in Tegucigalpa in anticipation of Zelaya's arrival, vowing to return.

The Honduran leader earlier told a television news station in Venezuela that he would return on Sunday, and do so with "several presidents" of allied countries.

"I am planning my return to Honduras... We will arrive at the international airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with several presidents (and) members of international organizations," he told Caracas-based station Telesur.

However, the Honduran interim leaders warned they would arrest him on his return.

The emergency OAS meeting was also attended by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador was expected in the US capital early Sunday.

Meanwhile, Catholic leaders in Honduras warned of a potential bloodbath if Zelaya returned to the country.

"We think that a return to the country at the moment could provoke a bloodbath," Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez -- the capital's archbishop -- said on national radio and television, reading a message from the country's Bishops' Conference.

"To this day no Honduran has died. Please think, because afterwards it will be too late," Rodriguez added.

Insulza also agreed that Zelaya's planned return to Honduras was dangerous and risky and that the ousted leader had "to make up his mind" on whether to undertake such a step.

"I think there are risks, of course," the OAS secretary general told reporters. "If you ask if it is a safe return, of course not."

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