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U.S. Misread Scale of Honduran Rift
Zelaya's Closeness to Venezuela's Chávez Was Source of Concern for Opponents

By William Booth and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 5, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, July 4 -- Although the U.S. government knew for months that Honduras was on the brink of political chaos, officials say they underestimated how fearful the Honduran elite and the military were of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and his ally President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Rumors were buzzing in the capital that the fight between Zelaya and his conservative opponents had reached the boiling point, but diplomatic officials said the Obama administration and its embassy were surprised when Honduran soldiers burst into the presidential palace last Sunday and removed Zelaya from power.

U.S. diplomats had been trying to broker a compromise and were speaking to both sides hours before the coup. For decades, Washington has trained the Honduran military, and senior U.S. officials say they did not think that the Honduran military would carry out a coup.

The overthrow, and the new Honduran government's vow to remain in power despite international condemnation, is President Obama's first test in a region that had grown distant from the United States.

The crisis also pits Obama's nuanced approach to diplomacy against that of an often bellicose rival, Chávez, who has taken center stage in the showdown by threatening to overthrow the government that took over from Zelaya.

The new Honduran leaders said Saturday that they will not yield to demands made by the Organization of American States to allow Zelaya to return to power. The caretaker president, Roberto Micheletti, threatened that Zelaya will be arrested if he returns Sunday as promised alongside Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and other Latin American leaders.

The Catholic Church appealed for calm. Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez went on the airwaves to beg Zelaya to "give us room for a peaceful resolution" and warned that, if Zelaya comes back Sunday, there could be "a bloodbath."

A Shift to the Left

When Zelaya, 56, a wealthy rancher whose family made its fortune from timber, was elected president in 2005, he was a middle-of-the-road populist from one of Honduras's two major parties. But as his presidency progressed, Zelaya veered to the left and was in constant conflict with business groups, lawmakers from his own party, the news media and the army.

"Over the last year, Zelaya's positions moved to the left. He pushed social programs and more attention for the poor who have no work," said Giuseppe Magno, the outgoing Italian ambassador. "This switch was not in line with the program he was voted in on. He was too close to Ortega and Chávez, a position the middle and upper classes did not appreciate."

But Zelaya saw it differently, often telling crowds that Honduras needed a fundamental shift to deal with poverty so grinding that 40 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Honduras is, in fact, the third-poorest country in the hemisphere, and many residents continue to resent the often painful past involvement of the United States.

In announcing his country's affiliation with a Chávez-led alliance, Zelaya told crowds that it was designed to "make Hondurans a free people." He said that in joining the pact, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, Honduras did "not have to ask permission of any imperialists."

Zelaya increasingly spoke of the two nations of Honduras, one hopelessly poor, the other wealthy and uncaring. He began to argue for "people power," a kind of direct popular democracy.

When he toured the countryside, he staged rallies to ask the people what they wanted, and promised new bridges and clinics on the spot, giving away 100 Venezuelan tractors to farmers and speaking against an unnamed oligarchy he called the enemy of the people.

Zelaya angered the business community when he raised the minimum monthly wage for Hondurans by 60 percent. Many companies responded by firing workers. Other businesses ignored the decree.

When U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens arrived last year, Zelaya postponed the ceremony allowing the newly arrived diplomat to present his credentials. He fought with his Congress, insisting that lawmakers accept his nominees to the Supreme Court. He refused to sign the budget and he stalled on dozens of bills approved by the Congress. All along, Zelaya grew closer to Latin America's leftist leaders, especially Chávez. He traveled frequently to Venezuela, where he stood beside Chávez as he gave fiery speeches railing against capitalists.

But Adolfo Facussé, a business leader who had been friends with Zelaya, said the president at first explained his alliance with Venezuela in pragmatic, economic terms.

"He said a year ago that he was interested in ALBA," said Facussé, speaking of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which included Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. "I said it's mostly an anti-American enterprise, and he said that's not what interests me. There is assistance being offered."

Facussé said that he invited Venezuelan Embassy officials to meet with Honduran industrialists, adding that it became clear to him and other businessmen that Honduras could benefit from Venezuela's largess, including the sale of fuel on preferential terms, a line of credit from Caracas and outright gifts, such as tractors.

"I reviewed the deal, and I thought it was good," Facussé said of Zelaya's plan to bring Honduras closer to Chávez and his cheap fuel.

'So Brazen, So Upfront'

European diplomats who know Zelaya and how he operates described him as a populist nationalist, not an leftist ideologue.

Those familiar with the growing crisis said concern about Chávez by political opponents was driven by an outsize fear that Venezuela had diabolical designs on Honduras -- and would have implanted Chávez's economic system and style of governance had Zelaya been allowed to carry out his referendum.

"It was the same scheme Chávez had in Venezuela," said Benjamin Bogran, the new minister of industry and commerce. "Chávez considers Honduras to be inside his orbit."

Elizabeth Zuñiga, a member of Congress and leader of the Nationalist Party, said: "Little by little, step by step, he was looking at the South Americans for help and guidance. They were his new best friends." Zuñiga, who supports the ouster, said, "What I believe we were seeing was the evolution of a democratic dictatorship."

Armando Sarmiento, a member of the ousted Zelaya cabinet, who is in hiding, said the fear of Chávez and his influence on Zelaya lead to the coup. "The right wing believes the myth that President Zelaya was going to seek an extra term. But this was not true."

Sarmiento pointed out that Zelaya wanted to help the country's poor, not nationalize industries or create a socialist economy. "President Zelaya had very strong arguments with these people, what the president called the oligarchy, the media, the special interests. There were campaigns of hatred against the president."

Doris Gutiérrez, a member of Congress who opposes the coup, said: "The sector here that supports the move against Zelaya has never been so open, so brazen, so upfront before. The situation is going to become more dangerous."

'The Political Nucleus'

Analysts familiar with Zelaya's cabinet said he was influenced by a small group of close aides. They included Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas, viewed as an ally of Ortega's Sandinista government in Nicaragua and daughter of a popular progressive politician who fled the country after a military coup in 1963. Others included Milton Jiménez, a former foreign minister who analysts said had the most influence on Zelaya; Enrique Flores Lanza, Zelaya's minister of the presidency and considered the most radical of his aides; and Aristides Mejía, Zelaya's vice president.

"They were the political nucleus, the ideologues of Manuel Zelaya," said Jorge Yllescas, an economist who is a member of Civic Union, a coalition of 60 groups opposed to Zelaya. "They were the ones who really had the ideological line. When Mel got to the presidency, he was liberal, but within a year he had a different tendency from his own ideology."

But the same diplomats are puzzled about exactly what Zelaya was after in his attempt to rewrite the constitution. The boiling point came when Zelaya began to push for a national survey, a kind of nonbinding referendum for a constitutional assembly that could led to a new law that allowed a president to serve more than one term. But Honduras's lengthy, sometimes contradictory document contains language that makes a person a traitor for even suggesting such a change.

As Zelaya pressed ahead with his plan to hold the vote last Sunday, the day of the coup, the leader of the Honduran military, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, balked, because the Supreme Court told him that the referendum was illegal. Zelaya tried to fire Vásquez, which further riled the military.

"Look, we're democratic and here we respect the ideologies of other countries," said Gabriela Nuñez, the new finance minister. "But we do not want to change our system of government."

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