Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Not Over Until It's Over

The Honduran situation remains unresolved and Zelaya is vowing to cross the border once again, so I’m still not sleeping well. Zelaya should have made more effort to court political allies in the legislature, as well as among mayors, in the courts, and even among his fellow elitists, instead of relying so much on outsiders, especially Hugo Chavez. That’s what grates on many Hondurans.

And he doubled the minimum wage and increased public employee salaries on the promise of continued cheap oil from Chavez. Without that oil—which Chavez has now withdrawn—those wages are unsustainable. If Hondurans should elect a president not to Chavez’s liking, that subsidized oil is not going to return.

Chavez also donated millions of energy saving light bulbs to Honduras, as I mentioned on this blog right after my Feb. visit there. They can be seen even in empty sockets in villages without electricity or in outlets powered by car batteries. Many people are proud and grateful to have them, whether or not they actually function.

If you have a very needy, uneducated population—many illiterate—it’s easy to win them over by promises and grand gestures. But whether Zelaya or another Chavez supporter would be able to continue to deliver depends mainly on the price of oil and the continued productivity of Venezuelan reserves. If that largesse diminishes or restrictions on the personal freedom that Hondurans have enjoyed become too onerous, people who supported Zelaya or his successor will regret their choice, but may then find it too late to backtrack. Already, because of the oil dependency Zelaya signed onto, Honduras is in hock and in a bind if it does not continue with Chavez.

I’ve heard nothing about the presidential candidates running in November or whenever elections will actually take place. Who are they—what is their position on the expulsion of Zelaya? What are their political platforms and priorities? No one is even talking about that.

The Honduran military is saying the right thing—demonstrating that it is under civilian rule—expressing a willingness to accept Zelaya’s return to the country if an agreement is reached. (See article below.) At the same time, the military has been carrying out the interim government’s orders and, it seems, taking care not to hurt demonstrators, even while trying to control them. (Demonstrators might disagree.) However, if the interim government cannot pay the military, especially with the suspension of military aid, including from the US, then the military’s discipline in carrying out the interim government’s orders may soon erode. Also, since most foot soldiers come from poor families like many Zelaya supporters, they are probably finding it difficult to hold back demonstrators from a similar background.

It is ironic that Cuba has been readmitted to the OAS, while Honduras has been ejected. Since when was Castro—either Fidel or Raul—elected? Since when were anti-government protests tolerated by Cuba, or even by Chavez in Venezuela?

I am especially concerned, quite naturally, about Peace Corps volunteers. I’m also curious about Cuban doctors, both those now assigned by the Cuban government and those who have defected and set up private practices in Honduras. Also, what about Cuban boat people who arrived via the northern islands? Some of them, fearing what may happen, may already be making their way via Guatemala and Mexico to the USA.

Says one of my readers: I don't in the least blame Arias for washing his hands of the situation. I wouldn't call it a failure on his part, either. He's dealing with amateurs in international relations. Zelaya, in a recent article, has been described as a Latin America's own George Bush -- a rich, dumb, happy guy who got himself elected by playing at being the people's friend and soon started fooling with the levers of power, supposedly reserved for grownups. He seems to have been rolled by Chavez, who of course is not exactly an intellectual, either.

A US-based American woman, with a Honduran daughter-in-law and a U-Tube video to back up her assertions, says: The ballots for the referendum on changing presidential terms, were printed in Venezuela and delivered in one place by Venezuelan soldiers… All of these "votes" were cast for the ousted president, Mr Zelaya...The ballot boxes were stuffed…Ceasar Chavez, dictator of Venezuela, might be buying off the Generals of the Honduran Military.

Meanwhile, the Honduran situation gets curiouser and curiouser. (An entire story like this could not have been invented and, no doubt, an enterprising writer with a name and connections is already penning a book that practically writes itself.) Reportedly, the head of the Honduran Armed forces is due in Miami this weekend to take part in an offbeat religious sect meeting, according to the public announcement of the group’s "prophet,” claiming that the general in question, Romeo Vazquez, is his devoted follower. Maybe the general will be persuaded not to return to Honduras? Otherwise, this seems a heck of time to be leaving the country.

So, what will Hillary Clinton or her representative and Zelaya talk about in their meeting this week? Perhaps, Clinton, while still insisting that Zelaya return as president, will spell out measures to assure he does not abrogate his agreement on the limits to his powers and allows amnesty for all parties. Of course, he will not be forbidden from endorsing and supporting someone else to carry on where he left off. Micheletti’s government may finally feel pressed to settle. If Zelaya returns, it will be the first time in a long time, if ever, that an exiled Latin American leader has returned peacefully to his position. If so, that will be a feather in Obama’s cap. (Remember, you heard it here first if it should happen.) Otherwise, the interim government will advance elections and try to hold out, while the population becomes ever more restive. In either of these scenarios, bloodshed may be avoided. And then, after the elections, the world can go back to forgetting about Honduras once again.

Pro-Zelaya border protest weakens in Honduras
By Sean Mattson and Esteban Israel
Sunday, July 26, 2009 3:01 PM

EL PARAISO, Honduras (Reuters) - Disheartened supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya trickled home from the Nicaraguan border on Sunday, weakening protests backing his bid to return to power after a coup last month. Honduran troops manning checkpoints have prevented several thousand demonstrators from staging a show of support at the border for the leftist leader, now exiled in Nicaragua. Six miles from the border, 100 weary protesters milled around the coffee town of El Paraiso, a far cry from the massive outpouring of public backing Zelaya had called for.

Lilian Ordonez, a 29-year-old teacher, came with a convoy of some 100 cars to try to reach the border, but only six made it through the checkpoints. "We're going to head back to Tegucigalpa where most of the people are," she said, wiping off tears. "We have to change our strategy ... People are angry but we don't have weapons and against a rifle, we can't do anything." Demonstrations planned on the Nicaraguan side of the border were also muted.

Zelaya was accused by Honduran Congress and Supreme Court of trying to extend presidential term limits. Soldiers arrested him and sent him into exile on June 28. The United States, Latin American governments and the United Nations want Zelaya returned to power, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized him as "reckless" when he took a few steps onto Honduran soil on Friday in a symbolic gesture in front of international media.

Zelaya, who was holed up in the Nicaraguan town of Ocotal near the border on Sunday, hit back at the U.S. secretary of state for the second time in two days. Clinton should "stop avoiding the issue" that the Honduran government is a dictatorship, he told journalists. "Secretary Clinton should confront the dictatorship with force," he said.

Roberto Micheletti, who was appointed interim president by Congress the day after the coup, says Zelaya's removal was legal since he was acting against the Constitution. The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and Congress backed his removal. U.S. President Barack Obama has cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras and threatened to slash economic aid.

But Obama has yet to take harsher measures and there are growing tensions with Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chavez. The crisis has put Obama in a difficult position. He does not want to show U.S. support for rightist coups in Latin America, but some Republicans in Congress say he has already done too much for the ousted leftist. "It's been very clear from the outset that (the Obama administration) didn't really like Zelaya anyway," said Vicki Gass, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. "This wishy-washiness on their part is giving the impression that they are backing away from their original stance," she said.

The U.S. State Department said Zelaya is expected to visit Washington on Tuesday but it was unclear who he would meet. In a move that risked alienating Washington, Zelaya said on Saturday that Clinton was not adequately informed about the "repressive regime" in Honduras.

Micheletti seems to believe he can resist international pressure until elections in November and the world will accept the new order when a new president takes office in January. The alternative is a negotiated solution under pressure from Washington, likely modeled on a proposal by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who was mediating talks between the two sides that broke down last week.

The Micheletti government says it is still committed to negotiations and open to some of the terms of the Arias plan, but not the return of Zelaya as president.
The Honduran armed forces issued a statement on Saturday expressing support for the negotiating process and affirming respect for civil institutions and the executive, legislative and judicial powers. The military chiefs of staff would be among those with most to lose if Zelaya does return as president, since their position would be weakened if there is an admission that they acted illegally in removing him. Zelaya's relations with the military were tense before the coup. Just days before he was removed from power, he fired the military chief of staff after the army refused to help him run an unofficial referendum on extending his mandate.

Military in Honduras Backs Plan on Zelaya
By GINGER THOMPSON and BLAKE SCHMIDT, New York Times, Sunday 7-26-09

WASHINGTON — The Honduran armed forces issued a communiqué on Saturday indicating that they would not stand in the way of an agreement to return Manuel Zelaya, the country’s ousted president, to power.

Meanwhile, in Las Manos, a town along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, Mr. Zelaya made his second symbolic appearance in two days, defying calls from foreign leaders to avoid any moves that might provoke violence in his politically polarized country.

The communiqué was drafted in Washington after days of talks between mid-level Honduran officers and American Congressional aides. Posted on the Honduran Armed Forces Web site, it endorsed the so-called San José Accord that was forged in Costa Rica by delegates representing President Zelaya and the man who heads the de facto Honduran government, Roberto Micheletti. The accord, supported by most governments in the hemisphere, would allow Mr. Zelaya to return as president, although with significantly limited executive powers. Mr. Micheletti has steadfastly rejected Mr. Zelaya’s return as president.

In its communiqué, the Honduran military added its support to the proposal. Officials involved said it was meant to dispel any perceptions that the military would block civilian efforts to resolve the crisis. The officials said the military communiqué was significant because it was the first sign of support for the San José Accord by a powerful sector of the de facto government. And the officials said it could make it more difficult for the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court to reject the accord when they consider it. American officials who met here with the Hondurans said that they were two colonels who were concerned about the tensions generated by the political conflict.

Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit human rights group, said she was told that the officers were showing Congressional aides a recording of the day Mr. Zelaya was detained, as evidence that no abuses had been committed against him.

In the meantime, however, thousands of troops had been deployed to tighten security along the border to prevent Mr. Zelaya from returning. And thousands of his supporters defied government curfews and military roadblocks, by abandoning their cars and hiking for hours to reach the remote border post to see him. Mr. Zelaya vowed to try a third time to re-enter Honduras. "We are ready to take this to its final consequences," he told his supporters. "We are not afraid.”

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