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.

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

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.

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.

In contrast, the moderate leftist presidents of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have remained popular even though the global economic crisis has battered their countries.

Chávez pulled Zelaya into his orbit

Recent events in Honduras would have been unimaginable when Zelaya was elected president nearly four years ago as a conservative, not surprising for a member of a wealthy ranching family.

Ever the provocateur, Chávez somehow pulled Zelaya into his orbit a couple of years ago. Honduras began receiving cut-rate fuel from oil-rich Venezuela and joined the Chávez-led "Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas."

The Honduran crisis began when Zelaya took a page out of Chávez's playbook by attempting to hold a public vote that would open the way for him to change the constitution and run for re-election later this year. The Honduran Supreme Court and the military said the vote was illegal, and troops hustled Zelaya out of the country.

Chávez denounced the coup in class terms.

'A warning for the oligarchs'

"If the oligarchs of this continent break the rules of the game, as they have in the past few days," Chávez said, "the people have the right to resist and fight back, and us with them. This is a warning for the oligarchs of this continent."

Chávez had reason to feel threatened, according to Álvaro Vargas-Llosa, a Peruvian analyst based in Washington at the Center on Global Prosperity, a research center that promotes free markets.

"We can judge from the way that he's reacted – he's been very nervous – that if the coup against Zelaya prevails, this could create a perception in Central America and beyond that Chávez is now facing a powerful counter-reaction, and that people are now willing to stand up to him," Vargas-Llosa said. "This could also embolden foes in Venezuela, including the military, to try to stop Chávez the next time he violates the law there."

An aim to split the OAS?

Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University from Bolivia, said Chávez had orchestrated a split in the OAS.

"Chávez and his group want to bring back Zelaya at any cost," Gamarra said by telephone from Miami. "The other group – led by the United States and Brazil _ favors a more cautious approach."

The Obama administration's opposition to the coup seems to have flummoxed Chávez. During the Bush administration, Chávez typically rallied Latin American presidents when the US took a position at odds with their governments.

"Obama has undercut Chávez's ability to be a knight in shining armor and use the US as a foil," Robert Gelbard, a former US policymaker for Latin America, said by telephone from Washington.

An illustration of that came Sunday, when Chávez told Telesur that he blamed "the Yankee empire" – but not Obama – for the overthrow.

"I am not saying that they have the support of Obama because I believe he [Obama] is more like a prisoner of the empire," Chávez said.


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