U.S. Misread Scale of Honduran Rift

Zelaya's Closeness to Venezuela's Chávez Was Source of Concern for Opponents

Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa at dawn on June 28 and ousted President Manuel Zelaya. The coup was mostly peaceful, though tanks and soldiers occupied streets in the Honduran capital.
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.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company