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U.S. (Belatedly) Changes Course on Zelaya, Chávez Stays Quiet

The U.S. drops its support for Honduran former president Manuel Zelaya. Hugo Chávez says nothing, a development in itself.

by
Dan Miller

Bio

November 10, 2009 - 12:43 am

The October 30 Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord (translated here), under which the United States and other nations are to recognize the results of the November 29 Honduran elections, was hailed by the U.S. government and by the Organization of American States (OAS) as “as bringing an end to a months-long political crisis.”

It seems to have fizzled because former President Manuel Zelaya insisted that he be reinstated before the unity government took office. Under the accord, the unity government took office, as scheduled, on November 5. Zelaya refused to submit his list of participants since he had not been reinstated, and it appears that his partisans will try to disrupt the elections.

The National Congress is to decide the question of Zelaya’s reinstatement, but is under no significant pressure — other than protests by the “resistance” — to do so until after the Supreme Court has made its views known, which is consistent with the accord. As reported by Honduran newspaper el Heraldo, President Roberto Micheletti’s government “respectfully” called upon the National Congress to “continue its consultations and proceed with its decision on Item 5 of the executive branch of that agreement, whether or not Mr. Zelaya is restored.”

The article also reported that:

The Minister of Information and Press, Rene Zepeda, read a statement urging Zelaya to return [to] the agreement to achieve unity and national reconciliation. … The deadline was the weekend, according to Zepeda.

It was also reported that several corruption indictments have been brought against various members of the former Zelaya government. Later in the day on November 7, a negotiator for Zelaya said representatives from the two sides would meet on Saturday to continue the negotiating process:

“We’ve possibly found a road. There’s a pre-agreement, but I don’t want to give more details,” Jorge Reina, a negotiator for Zelaya, told a local radio station. “There’s a new path.”

“Micheletti ratified [that] he recognized the importance of a waiting period during the weekend to form the unity and reconciliation government,” his office said in a statement.

However, later in the day Zelaya rejected President Micheletti’s offer, saying he had “no desire to return to dialogue with those who do not want to talk and really appear [to have] intransigent positions and [be] dishonest.” He demanded the intervention of the OAS and observed: “I think he (Hugo Chávez) has made a great effort to help Honduras with PetroCaribe, with Alba and education and health projects. We are very grateful to him.”

Begging for some more help, perhaps?

Then, apparently late on the evening of November 7, former Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas is reported to have said (Google translation) that the United States has recognized that the November 29 national election is the way forward to institutional legitimacy. He also said:

“We have seen how the U.S. government, which has been involved and very concerned about the situation in the country, now understands that the way to the institutional legitimacy is elections, and in the process the latest statements convince us it is very clear that the United States government will support elections, and that is something that should give satisfaction to the Honduran people.

“For me the most important [aspect] is to remember that the agreement is signed with the intention of the parties … [it] was signed and it must be implemented,” he said. [He] then said the National Party and his party have already determined a position, which is based on the Constitution and laws of the country.

“Obviously, Congress should listen to the different sectors and then act in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic and the laws.”

This seems to be a strong hint that since the U.S. government will recognize the elections regardless of whether Zelaya is reinstated, the pressure to reinstate Zelaya is off and two major parties have decided to vote against reinstatement. Unless the Honduran Constitution and laws have changed since June, and they have not, that is the only reading which makes sense to me.

Callejas seemed to be urging Zelaya’s faction to respect the accord and to proceed in accordance with it. I have found it interesting that the Honduran press is now quite often referring to “President” Micheletti and “former President” Zelaya.

It seems quite clear that the U.S. government at some point changed its position on the need for Zelaya to be reinstated for the November 29 elections to be recognized.

Previously, the removal of Zelaya had been characterized early and often as an unlawful coup and therefore bad. The change in position almost certainly occurred before the final accord was signed. Since the drafting of the accord was at the behest of the United States and was supervised by U.S. envoy Thomas Shannon, its meaning must have been clear to the U.S. In a press conference on November 3, Shannon seemed to know what the accord said and meant:

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said on the Senate floor that he’d spoken with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told him that the administration would recognize the election Nov. 29 in Honduras “regardless of whether former President Manuel Zelaya is returned to office.”

“I am happy to report the Obama administration has finally reversed its misguided Honduran policy and will fully recognize the Nov. 29 elections,” DeMint said.

Senator DeMint accordingly removed the hold he had placed on two State Department nominees. Thus far, no explanation has been given by the U.S. regarding its change in position, nor even an acknowledgment that it has changed. Nevertheless, the change has clearly upset Zelaya and probably Chávez as well.

Chávez, who had been unhappy with both the efforts to secure an agreement in Costa Rica and apparently with the U.S. efforts in Honduras, said upon hearing that the accord had been signed: “We want to congratulate the people of Honduras for the battle they have won.” That was consistent with Zelaya’s premature statement that he would be restored to the presidency within a week. Chávez also offered a more tepid “wait and see” comment:

“It seems there is an open horizon.” His ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, said Venezuela was “not going to start dancing” until Zelaya is back in office.

More recently, on November 7, Ambassador Roy Chaderton condemned “delaying tactics” as an effort to cheat the international community and observed that:

[It is] absurd to push ahead an electoral process with candidates who took part and supported the military coup and a dictatorship as if it were a democratic government, and the OAS is pinning hope at the fantasy that one of them will take power and will solve the problem.

He seemed to be disappointed with the OAS, which until recently at least has been in Chávez’s pocket. Three days earlier, on November 4:

Delegates from Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua [had] denounced coupist ploys to break the October 30 agreements about the president’s restitution, in OAS Permanent Council meeting.

Little if anything else has been heard from Chávez personally, however, since soon after the accord was signed on October 30.

It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes mystery involving the strange case of the dog in the night time. The dog had done nothing, not even bark, in circumstances which would normally have led it to do so. In more than a week since the signing of the accord, Chávez has barely uttered a restrained growl. It had been anticipated that:

Chavez will try to put his ally Zelaya back into office, even for a few weeks prior to the transfer of power, and preferably before the presidential election in November, so as to intimidate the opposition and claim a victory of sorts.

That may well happen, but thus far at least there has been no sign of it.

This article from el Universal presents an interview with Fernando Gerbasi, twice the ambassador to Colombia and also the chief of mission in Brasilia. Gerbasi feels many Latin American countries are becoming painfully aware of the domestic dangers posed by the Hugo Chávez/Venezuela model and are now putting distance between themselves and Chávez:

I would not say that … [Chávez] is completely out of the game [in Honduras], but on standby for the time being; at least for two years, in my opinion. Everything will depend on governance of the authorities to be elected on November 29th. Now, the role played by Brazil was not only in principle to replace (Honduras’ deposed President Manuel) Zelaya, but to prevent the advance of the Chávez project in Central America. And it does it in coordination with the United States.

This is an interesting take on Brazil’s position, and one which had not previously occurred to me. He may be correct about Brazil, although I had read statements coming from Brazil as being supportive of Zelaya.

Maybe President Obama will find time to read it. He and his diplomats should.

Gerbasi was also asked:

If Brazil and the United States curbed Chávez’s expansionist project in Honduras, could they make it elsewhere in the hemisphere?

He replied:

Yes, because there is growing awareness of the danger represented by Chávez. Hence, U.S. persons, such as New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, spoke up about the threat to U.S. national security of the Iran-Venezuela ties. Also, two U.S. Congress representatives recommended including Venezuela in the list of terrorist countries. But Chávez himself strives to give that impression, as he purports to turn the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America) into a military force; renaming it Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. Not by chance the Venezuelan government gave Ecuador Mirage fighters equipped with missiles and a Venezuelan retired general went there to shout “Homeland, Socialism or Death!”

It is a fascinating article and should be read by anyone interested in the Latin American context.

In Venezuela, Chávez — who continues to face increasing domestic problems and whose popular support seems to be slipping away — said socialism will solve domestic problems but forecasted three years of battle to improve living standards and meet basic needs.

In his Lineas Dominicales (Sunday Lines), Chávez announced the delivery of apartments in Portuguesa at $83,000, half of capitalist market prices, as part of a subsidized housing project that will charge a 4.5 percent interest rate over 30 years. Chávez also honored Simon Bolivar by promising to give everyone as much joy as possible.

One must wonder how many residents of the Caracas barrios — who have long been without water and electricity due to continuing infrastructure problems — will be able to buy the new apartments at $83,000, even with 4.5 percent interest rates.

Meanwhile, Chávez has told the Venezuelan military to prepare for war with Colombia.

Chavez told his supporters that President Barack Obama holds sway over Colombia’s government, and he cautioned the U.S. leader against using his allies in Bogota to mount a military offensive against Venezuela.

Don’t make a mistake, Mr. Obama, by ordering an attack against Venezuela by way of Colombia.

It seems reasonable to assume that Chávez now knows what the accord says, and that he is now aware of the box into which Zelaya put himself. He may have seen the accord before or soon after it was signed, but according to Venezuelan television source Telesur, he had not seen it as of October 31, the day after it was signed. He then said, “We have reports from Honduras that is very likely that in the coming hours President Zelaya is restored.” He probably has not given up on Zelaya, but maybe he has; his very close friend Patricia Rhodes, Zelaya’s chief negotiator, claimed on November 4 that “we will not accept the agreement and there would be recognition of the electoral process.” In an article written on the day when the accord was signed, which assumed (probably erroneously) that Zelaya would be reinstated, it was remarked that Chávez had to be bitter.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez … can say goodbye (for now) to his main objective: ensuring Zelaya remained in power through indefinite reelection so that he could add Honduras as a virtual vassal. His intervention in the crisis, which went from ridiculing Micheletti to threatening to ignite civil war, was as hyperbolic as it was ineffectual; it left him sounding like a clown.

Now that it appears very far from certain that Zelaya will be reinstated at all, he is hardly less bitter. Little has also been heard from Nicaraguan President Ortega, who has his own problems in attempting another run for president, or from other Nicaraguan officials.

Although Chávez and his friends in Nicaragua and elsewhere have some strings to pull in Honduras and have provided substantial backing for Zelaya since his June 28 ouster and before, they don’t have as many strings to pull as does the United States. Chavez may well have quit on Zelaya as speculated earlier. The lifting of sanctions, recognition of the November 29 elections, and the like, are no longer working in Zelaya’s or Chávez’s favor. As noted in the pro-Zelaya Huffington Post:

Everyone knows that Washington has the ability to force the coup regime to comply: there are billions of dollars of its assets in the U.S. that could be frozen or seized; seventy percent of the country’s exports go to the U.S.

The various countries in Latin America, even Venezuela, lack this power. Now that the U.S. seems to be fully committed to the terms of the accord, it should make little difference whether some Latin American countries continue to support Zelaya, back off from the accord, and refuse to recognize the elections.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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