Ousted Honduran President Plans Return But Future Is Unclear

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 3:31 PM

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is preparing to return to his country, days after the military pushed him from office and into exile.

But recent Latin American and Caribbean history shows that presidents who do manage to return to their homes after a coup are rarely the leaders they had been -- complicating the Obama administration's diplomatic calculations.

Zelaya is hoping to land in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, within days. If he does, he will likely be flanked by human shields, led by the secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, to prevent the immediate arrest that his unelected successor has promised.

The Obama administration has said it favors Zelaya's return.

"I don't want to stray too far from just the notion that, obviously, at [the] OAS, there's an Inter-American charter that establishes rights, rules and responsibilities as it relates to democratic governments," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today. "That's obviously something that's been violated, and the OAS, with the help of the United States, has . . . reacted to that."

The episode highlights, more than anything, the administration's challenge in dealing with Latin America's unarmed left, a political faction that has made huge gains in recent years and is often at odds with many U.S. interests.

In the decades after the successful Cuban revolution, armed Marxist insurgencies in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and other countries consumed all the political space available for leftist opposition, marginalizing a democratic left that might have emerged from the universities, labor unions, and elsewhere.

Each country's insurgency was different, especially in the domestic support it enjoyed, but all were condemned by successive U.S. administrations for the means they were using to achieve their purported ends of creating more equitable societies in a region twisted by class and economic imbalance. The policy turned many in the region against the "Yanqui imperialists" to the north.

Obama confronted this troubled legacy during his trip to Latin America and the Caribbean in April, but history's hold is strong for many leaders of the region's left.

As a young lieutenant colonel in 1992, Hugo Chávez tried to overthrow a highly unpopular, if elected, government of Venezuela. He went to jail, emerging years later as a self-described democratic revolutionary. He won the presidency in 1998, rewrote the constitution (allowing, among other things, for a second presidential term), and campaigned for its approval by popular vote. He has been a revolutionary by referendum, although his autocratic tendencies have increased the longer he has held power.

Chávez's self-styled Bolivarian revolution quickly drew followers in Ecuador, Bolivia, and, more recently, Honduras.

Then came a confused day in April 2002 when Chávez, following hours of violent street protests, was forced from office in a military coup. In Washington, George W. Bush's administration quickly labeled it a voluntary resignation. But within days, Chávez was back in Miraflores, the Venezuelan White House, with a chastened pledge to govern with less class-based vitriol and socialist zeal.

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