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The coup in Honduras points to a new scenario for Latin America

Article by Carlos Bellini, Daniel Lledo

July 13, 2009

Analysis 1: The Coup in Honduras can be explained by divergences among the local elite

After many years, Latin America again experiences an institutional rupture. Such is the case in Honduras. The political crisis was generated by then President Manuel Zelaya’s decision to remove the head of the Armed Forces, Romeo Vasquez, from his position.

Zelaya made the controversial decision after Congress and the Supreme Court deemed a plebiscite that could open the door for a Constituent Assembly, illegal. According to critics, the maneuver had as its goal the approval of a reelection – prohibited by the current Magna Carta.

Vasquez was relieved of his duties for refusing to provide logistical support to Zelaya’s proposal, who was eventually deposed by Congress. Roberto Micheletti took his place as interim-President.

Though many believe that Zelaya’s ousting is due to external motivations – namely, Honduras’ participation in ALBA – the Honduran crisis is primarily a domestic affair.

Until now, Honduras’ fragile government was held by an elite took alternate turns at power. Something along the lines of a pact between the National and Liberal parties, the two main political parties in the country. Politically, both are centrists that lean to the right.

Though he is the son of a farmer and belongs to the Liberal Party, Manuel Zelaya has grown close with the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, drifting away from his traditional base. He has become closer with the unions and the indigenous movement.

Taking advantage of an average economic growth of 5.5%, Zelaya increased the minimum wage by 60% and strengthened relations with groups without political representation.

The drifting away from the traditional parties that polarized Honduran politics since 1981 and the low capability of mobilization of the groups Zelaya has approached, left him in a fragile position. To make things worse, the Armed forces turned against him.

The Two Scenarios

Given the diagnostic presented in Analysis 1, it is possible to delineate the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

Manuel Zelaya cannot return to the country and Honduras becomes isolated. In addition to lacking political support among Latin American governments, it will experience serious economic difficulties. For example, because of the Coup, the World Bank froze US$270 million in credit destined for the country. The Inter-American Development Bank suspended a US$200 million repass. To make matters worse, the USA – traditionally an ally to Honduras in Central America – condemned the institutional rupture through the words of its president, Barack Obama. The only positive aspect of Zelaya’s departure from power is that the provisional government will enjoy more support from the political system to govern and establish consensuses.

Scenario 2

Without support from the media and the political system, only strong external pressure exercised by the USA, OAS, UN, IADB, IBRD, etc. can make Manuel Zelaya’s return to power viable. Even if that is the case, he will have to negotiate a deal to govern. Without the support of Congress and with a fragile social base, it will be difficult for Zelaya to maintain power solely through international support.

Analysis 2: Honduran Crisis points to a new scenario in Latin America

The approximation that the president of the United States, Barack Obama, has been attempting with Latin America indicates that the region is entering a new political moment. In the 90’s, there was the emergence of the liberal experiences driven by parties and governments of the right and center-right. In the 2000’s, it was the left that rose to power, through leaders like Lula, Michelle Bachelet, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, etc.

Now, a new scenario emerges. Intent on containing anti-Americanism in the region, Obama has been adopting the correct strategic positioning. Instead of confronting countries that declare themselves adversaries and “enemies” of the United States, he proposes a dialogue. This limits the rhetoric employed by leaders like Chavez, Morales and Correa. Meanwhile, the economic problems of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and others, intensify.

Another change in the North American Head of State’s foreign policy concerning Latin American regards the White House’s preferential partner. In the Bush administration it was Alvaro Uribe’s Colombia. Now, Obama is turning to Lula’s Brasil.

This new moment that the Latin American continent is experiencing can be seen in the Honduran political crisis. In the wake of Barack Obama’s condemnation of the coup against Manuel Zelaya, Hugo Chavez – the US’s biggest rival in the region – was left without rhetoric. Unlike previous instances, the Venezuelan leader’s actions were restricted to a condemnation of what occurred in Honduras.

There are clear signs that anti-Americanism in Latin America will be reduced in the upcoming years.

Another important lesson to be learned from the Honduran crisis regards the Bolivarian Revolution championed by Chavez. Despite the constitutional alterations that occurred in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, this model cannot be transposed to any situation, as evidenced by Manuel Zelaya’s failed attempt to consult the population.

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