The Caudillos v. the Elites: Honduras Coup Reveals Deep Divisions in Latin America

By Jens Glüsing

The coup in the small Central American nation of Honduras reveals the deep divisions in the region. The triumphal march of the leftist followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has provoked the established elites. The knee-jerk reaction in Honduras has been, yet again, to stage a coup.

The border region between Honduras and Nicaragua has a history of suffering. In the 1980s, the US-backed Contra rebels were deployed in the jungle here to bring down Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. Occasionally, farmers still set off old land mines in the green hills near the El Espino border crossing.

And now it appears that the war has returned. Just past the barrier on the Nicaraguan side, travelers face the gun barrels of young soldiers who have taken control of the border crossings in Honduras. Soldiers are also posted along the road to Tegucigalpa, the capital of this small Central American country. The disputed government imposed a nighttime curfew and blocked foreign television broadcasts right after seizing power on June 28.

In San Marcos de Colón, a town near the Nicaraguan border, very few people are willing to discuss the sense political situation. "We don't know anything about politics," say three residents standing in the town's picturesque plaza. But Marcos Rojas, the deputy mayor, who is sitting on the steps in front of the town hall, says quietly, after looking around to see if anyone is listening: "We want our president back. But most people here are afraid of the soldiers."

Honduras has gone through more than 100 coups -- one every two years, on average -- since gaining independence from Spain 188 years ago. In the second half of the last century, neighboring countries were also wracked by violence when Central America became a battlefield for proxy wars between Moscow and Washington. It was only after the end of the Cold War, 20 years ago, that calm began to return to the region. That is until the Sunday before last, when soldiers kidnapped Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and, in the dead of night, took him to Costa Rica.

Is the region faced with a return to its dark past?

Once again, a small country is the scene of an ideological conflict that has also engulfed several other countries. This time, however, it isn't the Soviets and Americans jostling for influence, but Latin American strongmen, as left-wing populists threaten the privileges of the established elites. The first casualties in this power struggle are Latin America's young democratic institutions, its provincial and national parliaments, national governments and the judiciary.

And, in an indication of how long the shadows cast by the Cold War still are today, the old propaganda machinery is grinding away once again. Those who support the coup insist that the Honduran president provoked his own overthrow, while their opponents demand that Zelaya be allowed to continue his policies unobstructed.

Discounted Oil from Caracas

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is primarily responsible for fomenting the new unrest in Latin America. He is in the process of forging a political alliance designed to expand his influence, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Honduras are already members of the organization. In return for receiving discounted oil from Caracas, the members are expected to back the Venezuelan caudillo in his political adventures.

Chavez has served as a role model for like-minded leaders intent on cementing their power. These presidents are barely in office when they typically convene a constitutional convention to guarantee their reelection. This was precisely what ousted Honduran President Zelaya had in mind.

Chavez's influence spreads.
DER SPIEGEL

Chavez's influence spreads.

A wealthy cattle rancher fond of wearing a Stetson hat in public, Zelaya is in fact a member of the established elite. But after taking office four years ago, he discovered that he had a soft spot for the poor. "He raised the minimum wage," Lúcio Cardona, 26, says appreciatively. According to Cardona, who works as a motorcycle courier for the Pepsi Cola distributorship in San Marcos de Colón, "the rich, of course, didn't like it."

As his popularity began to wane at home, Zelaya turned to his Venezuelan counterpart for support. "He really forced himself on Chavez," says Victor Bonilla, a small business owner. In early March, Zelaya even went to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan leader's political idol. The Máximo Líder was apparently so enthusiastic about his new ally that he posed for a photograph while wearing Zelaya's cowboy hat.

The conflict finally came to a head in June, when Zelaya announced his intention to hold a referendum on changes to the constitution. He also planned a second referendum on the convening of a constitutional convention that would grant him the right to run for reelection. The only problem with Zelaya's plan was that, in Honduras, only the parliament is entitled to introduce amendments to the constitution. The country's highest court disallowed the referendum.

But the president pledged to ignore the court's ruling. On June 28, a military commando seized Zelaya in his home, put him on a plane and flew him to Costa Rica. Roberto Micheletti, who had himself sworn in as Zelaya's successor on the same day, insists it was not a coup d'état but an "absolutely legal act."

'A Classic Coup D'Etat'

But why wasn't Zelaya simply charged with violating the constitution and put on trial? "It was a classic coup d'état," says José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS). The international community agrees. The OAS, the United Nations and US President Barack Obama unanimously called for the reinstatement of the ousted president. "We must prevent coups from becoming the accepted thing," says Insulza.

It may be too late for that. Latin America has become deeply divided by the triumphal march of left-wing populists, as they undermine democratic institutions in several countries, thereby provoking the opposition.

Hugo Chavez, who plotted a coup attempt in the 1990s himself, now keeps a close watch on opposition members and the critical media. The separation of powers is virtually nonexistent in Venezuela. In Nicaragua, where former revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega has been in power for the past three years, the Sandinistas rigged the results of the last local elections, prompting Washington and the European Union to cancel financial aid to Managua.

But the OAS has remained silent on these events in its member states. Even the moderate governments in Brazil and Chile have exercised restraint, despite the considerable influence they wield in the region. Instead, they invoke the principle of non-intervention.

But this principle hasn't applied to the coup in Honduras. As a result, Chavez and Ortega have been able to paint themselves as defenders of democracy, along with of all people Cuban President Raul Castro. In a hastily convened summit meeting of Latin American presidents last week in Managua, they called for economic and political sanctions, and Chavez even blustered about military intervention.

It now remains to be seen if the region's political institutions will be capable of withstanding the ongoing tensions.

Small Elite Dominate

And these persist in many Latin American countries. The wide divide in income distribution, the region's long-standing affliction, has not been closed since the return of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Conditions have only become somewhat more equitable in a handful of countries. Meanwhile, populists to the left and right are successfully courting the still large numbers of poor people in their countries.

Meanwhile, for decades a small elite has continued to dominate the parliaments, judiciary and governments of many countries and the traditional parties have fallen into decadence. The new man in power in Honduras, Micheletti, a wealthy businessman, has been a member of the congress there for 27 years -- and a typical representative of the upper class, which sees the state as its private property. These conditions make it all the easier for leftist demagogues to incite the masses to class struggle.

Most Latin American constitutions contained a built-in mechanism to curb the temptations of authoritarianism: a ban on reelecting the president. In the 1990s, however, Argentina's President Carlos Menem and Brazilian Social Democratic President Fernando Henrique Cardoso were the first to push through constitutional amendments that permitted them to serve a second term. Conservative Columbian President Alvaro Uribe has also taken this step, and now he is even flirting with the possibility of a third term.

Parallel Power Structures

When intervening in their constitutions, Chavez and his cohorts promptly turn their entire political systems upside down. They establish parallel power structures tailored to keeping them in control. The Venezuelan president has set up militias, and in Nicaragua so-called people's councils and gangs of thugs have been established to secure the president's position. Both countries are on the verge of dictatorship.

The most reactionary representatives of the old elite, backed into a corner as a result of these tactics, take a tried-and-tested approach to the advance of leftist strongmen: they stage coups. In Venezuela, wealthy businesspeople and rebellious officers deposed Chavez seven years ago, with the US looking on benevolently. But the putschists had underestimated the political support for the president, and after three days Chavez made a triumphant return to office.

Bolivian President Evo Morales claims that right-wing groups have tried to kill him, and that he barely managed to escape an assassination attempt in April. Although the circumstances of the conspiracy are unclear, his accusations cannot be denied, especially after a video was released in which one of the presumed assassins shot by the police had announced his intention to fight the "leftist dictatorship" as a mercenary.

The perpetrators of the coup in Honduras have also apparently miscalculated. The OAS, which Chavez once demonized as a stooge of the United States, expelled Honduras on Saturday after it failed to reinstate the elected President Zelaya. When the ousted leader attempted to return to Tegucigalpa on Sunday, accompanied by OAS Secretary General Insulza, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and other politicians, his plane was turned back.

On Thursday the two rivals refused to meet face-to-face during talks organized by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping Central Americans resolve their civil wars, held separate talks with Zelaya and Micheletti in the Costa Rican capital San Jose in an attempt to resolve the Honduras crisis. Afterwards the Costa Rican leader said that any resolution to the dispute must include Zelaya's reinstatement as president.

Last week, the new government received a foretaste of what the small country could face if the putchists refuse to comply. For 48 hours, the neighboring countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala closed their borders to trade with Honduras. Within hours, a backup of dozens of trucks developed at the El Espino border crossing. As the drivers dozed in hammocks under the trucks, their loads of meat and vegetables spoiled in the heat.

Marcos Rojas, the deputy mayor of San Marcos de Colón, fears that food and gasoline could soon become scarce in his small city. "Now we have to pay for what the putschists have brought upon us."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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