The international and domestic problems of el Presidente Chávez are increasingly pressing, and a few well-placed nudges might help him further along the path toward irrelevance in the Americas. Now would be a good time for the purveyor of hope to stop trying to befriend Chávez — and instead show that he has the audacity to say “nope.” Conceivably, the escalating threats and actions by Chávez’s ally, former Honduran President Zelaya, might push Obama in that direction, even if ever so slightly.
As previously noted here, Chávez had opposed negotiations in Costa Rica over the situation in Honduras, and they have thus far been unsuccessful. Only a few hours after President Arias announced the resumption of negotiations in Costa Rica on July 18, Zelaya openly called for insurrection — not if the negotiations fail, but immediately.
Chávez had already pronounced the negotiations dead. Zelaya apparently agrees, and sees insurrection as his only hope for reinstatement as president. An offer by the interim president to step down, provided that Zelaya does not return, apparently did not sway him.
Zelaya addressed his supporters in Honduras on July 14, during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom. Zelaya said that insurrection is legitimate “when faced with a usurping government and a coup-supporting military. … When the democratic order of a country is disrupted … I want to tell you to not leave the streets, that is the only space that they have not taken from us.”
Zelaya called for strikes, marches, takeovers, and civil disobedience. Although he did not expressly call for violence, the message was clear that he wants it, and more of it than his unsuccessful effort to return to Honduras following the “coup” produced. Martyrs are useful, and the more of them the better. Speaking earlier in Nicaragua, Zelaya had pledged he would pay “any cost” to reclaim his presidency. It has been reported, but not confirmed, that Zelaya may now be on his way back, and that people are infiltrating through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters have begun blocking roads and a curfew has been imposed by the interim government. It seems likely, if the insurrection continues, that the costs will be high and that Zelaya will pay far less than his followers and other Hondurans.
The United States has a small military component in Honduras of about 550 U.S. military personnel and some 650 U.S. and Honduran civilians. The military component has been claimed by Chávez to have been, in some unspecified way, involved in the recent “coup.” In the event the violent insurrection threatened by Zelaya continues, the U.S. personnel would almost certainly come under attack by Zelaya’s supporters.
Although Secretary of State Clinton was instrumental in facilitating the negotiations in Costa Rica, President Obama was four-square against the “not-legal coup” in Honduras from the beginning. By calling for insurrection even before the negotiations resume on July 18, Zelaya appears to have demonstrated that his participation lacked good faith — he was never willing to accept any result other than reinstatement, and that is unlikely to happen. President Obama has been characteristically silent, insofar as public statements are concerned.
It has been suggested that there is a growing difference of opinion between Obama and Clinton. President Obama should, at least, now condemn Zelaya’s recent call for violent insurrection — an insurrection which Chávez’s loyal ally, Ortega, might back even were Chávez himself not in the mood to do so.
Chávez has many other fish to fry, and they continue to pile up. Chávez will continue do whatever he thinks best for Chávez, in Honduras and elsewhere. His own “coup” against opposition leader Mayor Antonio Ledezma — overwhelmingly elected in November as the mayor of Caracas — was accomplished by installing a non-elected “super mayor” in his place and depriving the elected mayor of his offices and most of his budget. It seems to be failing, and that may have an impact on the Honduran situation.
José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, finally agreed to meet with Ledezma after the situation in Honduras “settles down.” Meetings have been announced for July 21 in Washington. This may mean that Insulza thinks Honduras will have cooled by that time, one way or another. Unless Zelaya goes forward with his threatened insurrection, apparently already underway, that might be possible. On the other hand, Insulza may foresee a prolonged and violent conflagration in Honduras, and may hope that it will give him a credible excuse not to meet with Mayor Ledezma; Chávez would like that.
To the extent that President Obama persists in coddling Chávez, Zelaya, et al, this seems more likely. Even a meeting with no substantive result would be awkward for Chávez. Should Chávez think that giving further help to Zelaya would enhance his own domestic and international power, he may try to provide it; otherwise, not.
Chavez, never very popular with the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela, seems to be getting even less so. Approximately 96 percent of the population claim to be Roman Catholics. Archbishop Roberto Luckert, vice president of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, said last week that the “democratic rule of law” had not been broken in Honduras, despite a “somewhat dark connection,” and that an investigation should have been conducted, “institutionally speaking,” prior to Zelaya’s removal from office. (The principal attorney for the Honduran military, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, stated on July 3 that although the military had arrested Zelaya under proper orders from the civilian government, it had acted without adequate authority by taking him out of the country. He stated that this had been done to prevent bloodshed there.) Archbishop Luckert also questioned the impartiality of OAS Secretary General Insulza. He noted that “Insulza is worried about OAS elections. Right now this organization is nothing more than a president’s club which caters to them but not to the people.”
Venezuelan media were offended and rushed to bash the Church. This article complains loudly about support said to have been given by “the two-faced, forked-tongued, and back-stabbing ‘Church'” to the brief and unsuccessful coup against Chávez in 2002, and notes that:
The so-called “Church” in Honduras supported the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya government in June 2009 and this so-called “Church” in Honduras supports and encourages the dictatorship set up after the overthrow of the democratically elected Zelaya Government.
On another front, Venezuelan oil exports continue to fall, dropping by more than 75,000 barrels per day from May to June, according to the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. The situation with the oil industry, a political football, is likely to get worse. On July 14, oil minister Rafael Ramírez said:
By now, there should not be a single counter-revolutionary in the heart of our company, our industry. … There cannot be a single PDVSA installation where socialist committees do not exist. … Whoever is not in a committee will be suspected of conspiring against the revolution.
He also said that no contracts would be discussed with non-Chavista oil trade unions.
A major factor in Venezuela’s inability or unwillingness to make necessary infrastructure investments in what should be her cash cow has been the expenditure of billions of dollars to support “revolutionary” movements in other countries. If Chávez is to continue to support those movements, he will need more money from the oil industry or from elsewhere. It seems to be in short supply, and Venezuela is trying very hard to attract funds from Russia and elsewhere.
Foreign investment dropped four-fold, from $2.58 billion in 2005 to only $648 million in 2007, according to the latest figures available from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. By now, the situation is almost certainly worse, and Venezuela is now willing to permit international arbitration of disputes related to those investments. Venezuela is also willing to provide for more favorable compensation formula in the event of future nationalization of industries in which there has been foreign investment. Whether Chávez means it or will be trusted are other issues.
President Obama could, of course, continue to support Zelaya by demanding that the interim government not “repress” the Zelaya insurrectionists; that would be tantamount to demanding that the interim government yield power to Zelaya. From the standpoint of what’s good for the United States, that would be as foolhardy as were his bland statements at the beginning of the earlier unpleasantness in Iran. Unlike the situation in Iran, such demands might work in Honduras and give Chávez and Zelaya enormous comfort.
President Obama is difficult to read: his slogan-laden public pronouncements may well not reflect his private intentions. It has even been suggested (gasp) that some of the things he said during his presidential campaign are not carrying over into what he does as president. What his intentions may be with respect to Honduras and Chávez remain a mystery. Still, there may be at least some small grounds to hope for a change in which we can believe.