Monday, November 23, 2009

Citizen Havel Film, IHS Brigade, Micheletti on Leave, Lobo Ahead in Presidential Poll for Nov. 29

If you have a chance to see the documentary “Citizen Havel,” as I did with my Czech friend, you will get an inside peek into the life of a head-of-state. Although the Czech Republic is a small country (10 million), it was pretty prominent in the post-Soviet period. From the “velvet revolution” to the end of his 10 years as president, Havel allowed himself to me filmed having informal conversations with his staff, preparing for public appearances, at his first wife’s funeral, and at his second marriage. It was like Nixon with his tapes, but filmed as well and spanning more than a decade. Included is footage of a visit by a youthful-looking Bill Clinton who, on being given a gold-plated sax, plays for an appreciative audience that includes Secretary of State Albright. Later, there is a visit by a sour-looking George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Like my late ex-husband, Havel chain-smoked Camels and, like my ex, developed lung cancer, but had the good fortune to survive after two major surgeries.

Official word has come through from International Health Service about the upcoming medical brigade I plan to join, that it will take place in and around Las Hortensias (a town mentioned in my book) Feb. 15-27. Meanwhile, Operation Smile, another regular brigade gig of mine is overlapping, with the dates of Feb. 18-28 in Teguc. I plan to start out with IHS and may go later to Operation Smile. Las Hortensias is at an even higher elevation than La Esperanza and last time I was there, it was foggy and cold. I wish I had a warm sleeping bag. IHS has a new website at

Now, just as I’m planning my Honduran trip, word comes from Kiwanis, who want me to speak at their conference being held Feb. 26-28 in nearby Arlington, Va. They had trouble reaching me because of my unlisted phone number, but somehow found my e-mail (perhaps through this blog?). Of course, that would be a great opportunity to promote the Peace Corps for older applicants and also my book, so, if I do that, I’ll have to cut my brigade participation short. To complicate matters further, the guy who reviewed my book for Peace Corps Writers, which gave me an award, is now in Panama with PC Response insisting that I visit there while I am in Central America. If so, it would have to be before the medical brigade but after another speaking engagement for the Library for the Blind Jan. 29. Ah, fleeting fame, such as it is.

Our local Spanish-language press here in Washington reports that Zelaya does not accept the accord that he signed, in part, apparently, because of a delay in its implementation and in part because he does not want to participate in a government of “national reconciliation” since that implies power-sharing with Micheletti. Didn’t he read the fine-print on that before he signed? But the vice president of the legislature reportedly has said that legislators are moving forward on the basis of the signed accord, regardless of Zelaya’s pronouncements, and will make a decision, one way or the other, after the Nov. 29 election.

Maybe the US failed to dot some “i”s or cross some “t”s in relation to the accord or there’s some backroom deal between the US and the interim government. It could be that the US got fed up with trying to accommodate Zelaya, especially since Latin American governments also seem to have cooled off in their support. Even Chavez has been uncharacteristically quiet. Also, the fervor of Zelaya’s supporters seems to be waning. Maybe it’s just the usual hopelessness and helplessness and just plain fatigue kicking in after so many false announcements of an impending deal and so many fruitless efforts. Meanwhile, the latest US envoy, Craig Kelly has said that the US will recognize the Nov. election, calling voting a democratic right of the Honduran people, with the election “part” of the solution to the crisis, whereas previously the US has threatened not to recognize the election as legitimate. This is a far cry from the heady days when Hillary Clinton pronounced the removal of Zelaya a “coup” and invited him to the White House. Over time, the administration has backed away from that stance, perhaps in part because of sheer weariness and also Zelaya’s own actions, like sneaking back into the country, which the Secretary of State characterized as counterproductive.

On Friday, my interpretation patient was from Honduras and had just returned from a visit to La Ceiba, a major city on the north coast, using her US passport (she is dual citizen) because Honduran consulates in this country have been shut down and the US is not granting visas. She told me that almost no one there was talking about either Zelaya or the upcoming election. Most were concerned about economic survival during an increasingly difficult time. The political stuff, she said, was taking place mostly in the capital. I told her that I know a Latin American an observer of Honduran politics (see below) who believes that the seeds of a revolution, civil war, or army revolt have been sowed by the Zelaya matter. This woman said she saw no evidence that any such activity was brewing, at least, not yet. I also spoke with a local Honduran friend and one-time environmental activist (the one I helped obtain asylum here) who believes that Zelaya’s momentum has been lost and that he will never resume the presidency.

However, if the army is not being paid adequately, given the economic pinch on the Honduran government, then unrest among its ranks is likely to grow. Additionally, if Zelaya supporters are able to cause unrest that the army reluctantly has to control, army disaffection may eventually occur.

El Nuevo Herald
in Miami has announced that Micheletti is taking a leave from the presidency, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2, so as not to distract from the election process. It wasn’t clear who would be taking over. I guess he doesn’t want to be blamed for being an illegitimate chief executive overseeing the voting process. Also, he may fear for his personal safety after his nephew was murdered.

I also received some LA Times clippings from a Los Angeles friend about a documentary called “Which Way Home” that followed Honduran kids on the perilous journey to the US. Another article reports that Central Americans’ northward migration is up this year, especially from Honduras since Zelaya was removed from office. She also sent an article stating that Peace Corps applications are up 40%, not surprising, given the state of the economy.

On another topic related to my Amnesty volunteer work on the Caribbean, Yoani Sanchez, a young Cuban blogger not allowed to leave her country recently to collect a journalism prize awarded by Columbia University, has now written to President Obama asking seven questions, which he has answered in considerable detail. Obama says that he is willing to meet and talk with representatives of the Cuban government, but only if there is to be substantive discussion, not just talking for talking’s sake. He said that he has already taken steps toward family reunification by allowing those with relatives on the island to visit there freely and send remittances, also steps to facilitate direct phone communication and mail exchange. However, while Mr. Obama agreed to consider and explore other measures, he did not agree to take any other unilateral measures. In response to Yoani’s question about whether he would consider visiting Cuba, he did not rule out such a visit, but said that any such visit would require considerable preparation and needed to be aimed at defined purposes. Raul Castro did not answer the same list of questions. Yoani's husband was beaten up out on the street, as she herself was few days earlier.

Regarding Zelaya’s announcement that he and his followers will boycott the Nov. 29 election and are asking the world not to recognize its legitimacy has brought this response from our usual wordy Latin American correspondent: That is the only dignified answer that he could give. He should have done this long ago so as not to give Micheletti the opportunity to run out the clock! It also sets up the situation for abstention and pubic confrontation on election day, to be followed hopefully by an army uprising in his favor. At this stage of the game, abandoned by the US government, he has no better card to play. It is a long shot but it could possibly generate an army pronunciamiento and if it does not, it helps to make him a political martyr and increases his popularity with the Honduran people.

If there is no popular uprising before election time, expect an announcement creating a new Zelayist party shortly afterward that, if Zelaya is still alive, will probably nominate candidates for the presidency and congress in 2013 and if not outlawed will probably sweep the elections in that year and vote in favor of a constitutional convention shortly afterward to eliminate presidential term limits and allow Zelaya to be elected president-for-life.

The oligarchy may have won a Pyrrhic short-term victory but they have made the long-term struggle more difficult by making him the idol of the Honduran population! The oligarchy knows all this and is also aware that keeping him imprisoned in the Brazilian Embassy will not stop him from directing the new political movement.

The only solution to the threat he poses is assassinating him! For this reason, the oligarchy will probably amnesty him so he can leave the Brazilian embassy, go out into the world and provide a better target for assassination. [Murders of politically connected figures have been fairly frequent just in the last few months.] That and the loss of prestige of the Obama administration and the US government in Latin America as a result of the sudden switch in the US position are the only thing I can see in my crystal ball! Obama acted in this manner to forestall expected Republican criticism before the midterm elections if Zelaya was returned to power. But the jury is still out on whether the possible domestic benefits of this move will outweigh the foreign policy costs of such a decision.

Allowing a weakened and restricted Zelaya to return to the presidency would have been a better option because he could not have been able to carry out his desires and this would have produced disappointment and weakened his long run backing with the Honduran people. It turns out that the Honduran oligarchy is not the only group capable of behaving myopically! Even the almighty US government with all the expert counseling at its disposal is capable of losing important long-run foreign policy advantages for minuscule short-run electoral benefits.

Meanwhile, the Nov. 29 election is going forward, as per the article below, with Nationalist (Conservative) candidate Lobo ahead in the polls. If most Hondurans survive on $250 per month, as the article below contends, that is more than Peace Corps volunteers got as allowance when I was there and must be due to Zelaya’s raising of the minimum wage, which the legislature approved. Still, with the withdrawal of aid and loans, that average wage must have fallen since Zelaya’s ouster.

The article confirms my impressions that while revolutionary fervor may still be bubbling below the surface, as our frequent commentator above contends, many Zelaya supporters seem to have given up for now and most people just want to return to the previous familiar status quo, however inadequate. Some had a brief window of hope for something better, but now see it closed,

Honduras election sets return to business as usual
Associated Press
Sunday, November 22, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The coup last summer in this tiny, Central American country blew up into an international incident, with thousands of Hondurans taking to the streets while everyone from Barack Obama to Fidel Castro lined up behind ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Now, with Zelaya still holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, voters will choose a new president Nov. 29 from the political establishment that has dominated Honduras for decades. No one is pushing the leftist agenda of the ousted leader, who said he was trying to lift a country where seven in 10 people are poor.
That's because Zelaya was disturbing a deeply conservative society that has long cherished peace and stability. "It's a risk-averse culture," said Manuel Orozco, a Central America expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

The months of turmoil as Zelaya pressed for his reinstatement, the negotiation and U.S. shuttle diplomacy are about to be overtaken by business as usual - Honduran style. Even many of the poor who supported Zelaya as he aligned himself with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Latin America's new left say they will vote for conservative front-runner Porfirio Lobo, a 61-year-old wealthy businessman who is ahead by double digits in the polls. "I will vote for the one who can fix this and give us work right now, because those suffering are the poor," said Reina Gomez, 53, a single mother who washes clothes for a living and who supported Zelaya in 2005.

Zelaya, a commanding figure whose standard uniform includes a white cowboy hat, was prohibited by the constitution from running for more than one term - even before the military whisked him out of the country at gunpoint in the June 28 coup. His opponents said he wanted to follow in Chavez's footsteps and revise the constitution to extend his time in office. Zelaya denies any such intention.

Honduras has always been run by a handful of families who control the news media, economy and every power sphere from the military to the Supreme Court. As many of Central America's conservative governments battled leftist insurgencies from the 1960s to the 1980s, Honduras had no civil war and served as a key staging area for U.S.-backed Contras fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

But in one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest nations, gaunt workers in torn shoes and worn clothing trudge from their hillside shanty towns past Tegucigalpa's gleaming shopping malls to work in garment factories or American fast food restaurants. Most survive on $250 a month. "Here the politicians don't appreciate the people. They promise you all kinds of things but one comes in and then the next, and things are still the same," said construction worker Mario Espinal, 52, whose work diminished by half when international loans were cut off in the political crisis.

Like his counterparts from Nicaragua to Ecuador, Zelaya began preaching reform that favored the poor. He raised the minimum wage by 60 percent and pulled in Venezuelan aid that included free tractors and $300 million a year for agricultural investment. "President Zelaya gave us hope that the people of Honduras would finally be able to emancipate themselves from a group of oligarchs that have kept this country subjugated through a constitution that was shaped to protect their interests," said Andres Pavon, a human rights activist. While many Hondurans want reform, they were reluctant to trust Zelaya, a wealthy rancher elected from one of the two major conservative parties.

Orozco notes that other Latin American leftist leaders - from Chavez to Bolivia's Evo Morales and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil - grew up poor. They also spent years building their grass-roots movements, while Zelaya - with support from a couple unions and student groups - started shooting from the hip late in his term. Zelaya "belongs to the elite, and he chose to dismiss his own peers and paid the price for that," Orozco said. "Those leaders have a hard time communicating their message. They think that because you like the poor, the poor are going to like you."

According to the CID-Gallup Poll, Zelaya's job-approval rating dropped steadily from 2007 to just 38 percent in October 2008, though it had rebounded to 53 percent by February and has held steady around 50 percent since. But beyond the first week of his ouster, he had a hard time amassing large numbers of supporters demanding his return.

Meanwhile, the left in Honduras is divided into small parties with few resources - and without a charismatic leader to unite them into a movement strong enough to challenge the conservative stronghold. Presidential front-runner Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005, is campaigning on a return to normalcy and blames Zelaya's Liberal Party for thrusting the country into international turmoil.

His main opponent is the Liberal Party's Elvin Santos, a construction magnate who distanced himself from Zelaya's leftist rhetoric at a closing campaign rally on Sunday. "Democracy is built on work, effort, sacrifice," Santos said. "Some people say that can be disguised now by calling it 21st century socialism. ... I call that disguised populism."

The U.S-brokered pact with the interim government of Roberto Micheletti leaves the decision to reinstate Zelaya with the Honduran Congress, which has yet to vote. Zelaya has said he would not return to the presidency if Congress votes to restore him after the elections because that would legitimize the coup. The new president chosen in next week's elections will not take office until January.

But some say Zelaya might have done just enough to awaken a leftist movement in Honduras - either led by him or someone else. "I can see Lobo setting something up and smoothing over things with Zelaya because he wants to ensure Zelaya won't be a nuisance," said Heather Berkman of the Eurasia Group. "I don't think his political career is over. I can see him coming back in some shape or form."

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