Honduras crisis: Did Zelaya snub Hugo Chávez for Brazil?

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya chose to hole up in Brazil's embassy out of concern that his ties to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez would diminish his support in Honduras.

Edgard Garrido/REUTERS
Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya naps on a couch Tuesday inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Zelaya ended almost three months of exile by sneaking back into Honduras on Monday, seeking refuge at the embassy to avoid arrest.

Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez never misses a chance to put himself front and center.

After the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, Mr. Chávez loudly condemned the US for a lukewarm response and said he would send his own forces to Central America to boost his ally if need be.

But when Mr. Zelaya returned to Tegucigalpa after three months in exile on Monday, he conspicuously turned to Brazil for help, not Venezuela. As police fired tear gas at Zelaya supporters on Tuesday, he was holed up in Brazil's embassy, not Venezuela's.

Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim stood behind Zelaya saying Tuesday that his country will not tolerate any actions against the embassy.

It could be a calculated political decision on the part of Zelaya – to distance himself from Chávez, a polarizing figure in Honduras. Though Zelaya denies it, his foes say he was following the steps of his Venezuelan ally, particularly in regard to his alleged desire to change the Constitution to scrap presidential term limits, which was the reason for his ouster. Yet whether calculated or by default, Zelaya's refuge in the Brazilian embassy eclipses any role, for now at least, that Chávez may have hoped to play in this political crisis.

"Seeking asylum with Brazil shows that [Zelaya] thinks Brazil is the neutral voice in the crisis, not the US, Costa Rica, [or] Venezuela. He's essentially throwing in his lot with the party he thinks has the best chance to get him restored to power," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultancy based in New York. "It's a tangible representation of a power shift in the region."

Zelaya, a Chávez ally

It is clear that Zelaya and Chávez remain staunch allies. Chávez, who calls Honduras's interim leaders "coup mongers," has seized every possible opportunity to rail against the US for not coming down harder on leaders in Honduras.

Mr. Farnsworth says he believes that a prolonged crisis in Honduras works in Chávez's political favor. "So long as it remains unsettled," he says, "he can work with it to somehow blame the United States and promote his own interests."

But Chávez's flair for rhetoric has been tempered in this case by the unusual fact that Chávez and the US are on the same side, says Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at the Tendências consulting group in São Paulo, Brazil. "Chávez's rhetoric loses some of its force, in this case he and Obama are both defending the Constitutional order," Mr. Cortes says.

Anti-Chávez sentiment in Honduras?

Mr. Chavez's lack of a role isn't for wont of trying, however. It was Chávez who announced to the world that Zelaya had returned home. "President Manuel Zelaya, along with four companions, traveled for two days overland, crossing mountains and rivers, risking their lives. They have made it to Honduras," Chávez trumpeted on Monday.

But Zelaya, perhaps worried about the lack of Honduran support for Chávez's radical brand of leftism and anti-American bombast, appears to have returned the favor by keeping Chávez at arms reach.

Chávez's footprint on his return is counterproductive for Zelaya, given the strong rejection that so many in Honduras give the Venezuelan leader, says Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and now at the Brookings Institution. It could raise questions about Zelaya's real intent to start a "process of national dialogue," says Mr. Casas-Zamora. "This only confirms in the eyes of the people in government that the person behind the plot of his return is Hugo Chávez."

The episode is not likely to stoke tensions between Brazil and Venezuela, though, even as each seeks to hold the mantle of regional leader. Chávez and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are allies and they are clearly on the same side. "Lula has a good relationship with Chávez in spite of the differences in the tone of their discourse," says Cortes.

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