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Has Chavez Quit on Zelaya?

Until the apparently abortive negotiations in Costa Rica began, Venezuelan President Chávez had played a leading role in pushing Manuel Zelaya’s efforts to amend the Honduran constitution and to seek additional terms as president.

When Zelaya was removed from office, Chávez demanded his reinstatement. Soon after Zelaya’s exile on June 28, Chávez blustered, “This is a coup against Venezuela! … It must not be permitted.” He further stated that he would do whatever it takes to “teach the coup leaders a lesson.”

In a column published on July 10, Fidel Castro stated that if Zelaya “is not returned to his post, a wave of coups threatens to sweep many Latin American governments.” Chávez was opposed to the negotiations in Costa Rica under the aegis of President Óscar Arias, seen as bad news for his choice to continue to lead the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza. Insulza had earlier tried and failed to “negotiate” Zelaya’s return and reinstatement.

When interim Honduran President Roberto Micheletti arrived in Costa Rica for the meetings with Arias, Chávez said “how horrible to see a legitimate president receiving a usurper and giving him the same treatment” as Zelaya. Chávez telephoned the U.S. State Department while the meetings were in progress. There has been no report on what he said during a half-hour long conversation, beyond demanding that the United States “do something … Obama, do something!”

Zelaya and Micheletti met separately with Costa Rican President Arias on July 9. Both soon departed, leaving their negotiating teams behind. Zelaya’s team includes his foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, described by many as the ”main Chávista” in Honduras.

She left Coast Rica early on the morning of July 10 to return to Mexico, where she is in exile. The other members apparently remained in Costa Rica; whether they wear red berets has not been reported. Micheletti’s team includes a former head of the Supreme Court, a former foreign affairs minister, a businessman and politician from the centrist Democratic Christian party, and Liberal Party leader Mauricio Villeda. The teams’ members are quite vigorous representatives of their respective sides.

Although Arias expressed “confidence” after the meetings recessed, the only agreement had been on an agenda for future sessions. Arias declined to provide any details of the agenda. However, according to this report, the head of the United Nations General Assembly — a former Nicaraguan revolutionary loyal to Chávez — claimed on July 10 that a breakthrough was imminent.

Others at the U.N. talked about a timetable under which Zelaya would return to Honduras as early as the week of July 13 and be permitted to complete his term as president after promising not to extend his rule. This seems inconsistent with Arias’ statement that no more than an agenda for future sessions had been agreed upon. And a return of Zelaya on the terms suggested by the United Nations spokesman appears to be inconsistent with the expressed desires of Chávez and Fidel Castro. It would, however, likely paralyze the Honduran government.

Micheletti returned to Honduras and, aside from asking the country to prepare for six months of austerity on account of international sanctions, has had little little to say. The curfew imposed on June 28 has been lifted.

Zelaya, on the other hand, flew to the Dominican Republic to meet with Dominican President Leonel Fernande. He received full military honors. Fernande then left for Egypt to “take part in the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations in Egypt,” to be held beginning on July 11. Zelaya had asked that he speak for him there and to “state” his (Zelaya’s) position on the “coup.”

Unless something concrete developed — unlikely, and thus far unreported — during his meeting with Arias to change it, the former president’s position is already quite well known; it continues to mirror the earlier positions of Chávez and Fidel Castro.

Speaking on July 11, Zelaya said that the negotiations had opened a “window” for a deal and promised to back his case for restoration in Honduras and in the international arena. He did not indicate what actions “inside the country” he had in mind, but his statements seem to indicate that things had gone badly for him in Costa Rica. Zelaya raised the possibility of discussions on July 11 with the U.S. State Department during his meetings with OAS representatives in Washington.

Since the negotiations in Costa Rica recessed, with Chávez (unlike Zelaya) characterizing them as dead, Chávez has produced few outbursts about Honduras, with the apparent exception of a July 12 “cadena.” (Chávez’s cadenas, often hours long, are required to be broadcast by all Venezuelan radio and television stations.) There, he urged the United States to be firm in returning Zelaya to power. He said that if Zelaya is not returned to power, Venezuela will not recognize any president chosen in the scheduled November Honduran elections.

Despite Chávez’s obvious interest, and despite his earlier suggestion that even military intervention by the United Nations might be necessary, his comparative silence about Honduras since the recess of the meetings in Costa Rica has been deafening.

This is odd; Chávez is generally quite loquacious. It may indicate that something is brewing, or perhaps it may mean that Chávez is unhappy with Zelaya and President Arias for having met without his prior approval and is content to leave Zelaya hanging in the wind. On July 10, Chavez complained, apparently without his usual bombast, that the meeting had been a “very dangerous trap for democracy, which set a very serious precedent.”

Chávez’s relative silence may simply indicate that he is very busy with other things. As I wrote here about a month ago, Chávez has numerous domestic problems and they are worsening daily. He now faces more problems internationally as well:

—  “Media terrorism,” as to which Chávez’s approach has become increasingly repressive.

— The skyrocketing cost of living in Venezuela. Caracas is now the most expensive city in Latin America. This year it shot up from the 74th to the fifteenth most expensive city in the world. The problem is exacerbated by the low wages in Venezuela.

— Chávez’s own “coup” depriving the opposition mayor of Caracas, elected by a landslide in November of 93 percent, of his budget and of his offices, and appointing his own unelected loyalist as ”super-mayor.” The head of the OAS, although an ally of Chávez, has agreed to meet with opposition leaders after the Honduran crisis is over. Chávez then relented, saying that partial funding will now be provided for the mayor.

— Chavez’s popularity in Venezuela is declining; a recent poll indicates that two-thirds of the people want Chávez out by 2012 when his current term in office ends — or sooner.

— Keeping his allies in line. On July 10, the Revolutionary Marxists of Iran published an open letter to the workers of Venezuela on Hugo Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad. The letter is well worth reading. It came down very hard on Chávez for supporting the theocracy in Iran. This report was reprinted by at least one Venezuelan news site.

— The “obstinacy” of Brazil in failing thus far to agree to the entry of Venezuela into the Southern Cone Economic Zone (Mercosur) due to “doubts” about the existence of democracy in Venezuela and the refusal of the Venezuelan ambassador to appear before the congress to explain Venezuela’s position.

— The unexpected and very substantial June 28 electoral defeats suffered by the Chávez backed Peronista party in Argentina, prompting the husband of the current president (her immediate predecessor in office) to resign on June 30 as head of the party and casting doubt on whether he will run again for president in the next election.

— Chávez also has continuing problems in Chile.

— Chávez may be preoccupied with what he claims are incipient coups in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. This would be consistent with former President Castro’s assertion the day before that if former President Zelaya “is not returned to his post, a wave of coups threatens to sweep many Latin American governments.”

— Or perhaps Chávez’s head has simply become too large for his red beret and he has a very bad headache.

The list could go on and on. However, what now happens in Honduras probably depends to a great extent on the international power of President Chávez, which seems to be diminishing. Also, as the Venezuelan economy nosedives and repression of the opposition escalates, the domestic resistance to Chávez appears to become better organized and Chávez’s problems increase. Perhaps Chávez has too many balls to juggle all at once; perhaps his balls are inadequate to permit him to juggle them all.

At this point, it seems unlikely that there will be a resolution of the Honduran question acceptable to Chávez, Zelaya, and Castro. The best resolution for the people of Honduras would be for Zelaya to stay away. According to a CID-Gallup poll published on July 9, 41 percent of Hondurans considered Zelaya’s ouster justified while only 28 percent did not. The poll results are consistent with what happened in last year’s presidential primaries: Zelaya endorsed Micheletti’s candidacy and, apparently due to that endorsement, lost in the primary.

Any number of countries — Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Ecuador, and possibly even the United States — might be happy to grant asylum. Zelaya should take advantages of those opportunities while they last.