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How the Honduras crisis boosts Venezuela's Chávez

President Hugo Chávez, an avowed socialist and critic of the United States, has emerged in the unlikely role as the leading champion of democracy for Honduras.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / July 8, 2009

Ousted Honduran President Manual Zelaya (l.) speaks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a meeting in Managua, Nicaragua, on June 29.

Miraflores Palace/Reuters


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been the clear winner so far in Honduras's political crisis, leading the hemispheric condemnation of the June 28 military ouster of President Manuel Zelaya while orchestrating Mr. Zelaya's most audacious attempt to regain power, analysts say.

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Mr. Chávez, an avowed socialist and critic of the United States, has emerged in the unlikely role as the leading champion of democracy for Honduras, though he catapulted to fame as an army colonel by trying to overthrow Venezuela's democratically elected government in 1992. Chávez was first elected president in 1999, but he's been stripping Venezuelan elected opponents of their power recently.

"Chávez has been showing a great level of influence" in the Honduras crisis, former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said by telephone from La Paz. "He has been setting the tone for the international community; the OAS [Organization of American States] has been running at his rhythm and pace; and he has been milking this for all it's worth. It's been an incredible gift given to Chávez by the [Honduran] military."

Political theater?

Chávez choreographed the cinematic tour de force Sunday when Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras by flying to Tegucigalpa without permission from Honduras' de facto government while thousands of Zelaya's followers cheered him on and clashed with security forces.

Zelaya was traveling on a Venezuelan plane flown by Venezuelan pilots, and the drama was covered live throughout Latin America by Chávez's fledgling Telesur cable network, which had the only TV cameras aboard the plane. The runway blocked, the plane circled the Honduran capital and then landed in neighboring El Salvador.

"You have to admit that it's been quite a show," Mr. Quiroga added.

In steps Costa Rica's Oscar Arias

On Tuesday, for the first time in the crisis, Chávez became a bystander as the Obama administration played its most direct role so far in the standoff.

After meeting Zelaya in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias – who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to broker an end to Central America's wars of the 1980s – would attempt to find a solution that's acceptable to both sides in Honduras.

Welcome distraction for Chávez

The crisis came at a time when Chávez could use the distraction. The fall in the price of oil has limited his ability to reward friends at home and abroad. His influence also has been declining in Latin America as he and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Honduras have been suffering from political and economic troubles.