Chavez Rallies Allies, Hints at US Hand in Ousting of Honduran President

By Patrick Goodenough | June 29, 2009 | 1:35 AM EDT

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez greets his Nicararaguan counterpart Daniel Ortega in Managua on Sunday as they prepare for a special ALBA summit to discuss the situation in Honduras. (AP Photo)

( – The Obama administration joined other governments on Sunday condemning the forced removal from power of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, an incident that Venezuela’s U.S.-baiting leader was quick to link to Washington.

Troops removed Zelaya from his home early on Sunday morning and flew him to Costa Rica. The country’s Supreme Court and parliament sought to justify his ousting on constitutional grounds but the toppled president said he was a victim of a military “coup.”

The Organization of American States (OAS), meeting in emergency session in Washington, also described the event as a “coup.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Zelaya, said he was putting his armed forces on alert and declared that the nine-nation Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc was “at battle” until the rule of law was restored in Honduras.

ALBA is to hold an urgent meeting in Nicaragua, with Zelaya present, to discuss the crisis.

The alliance, which recently changed its name from Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, was launched by Chavez as a leftist answer to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and a counterweight to Washington. Zelaya took Honduras into ALBA last year. Other members are Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda.

In a statement issued amid growing turmoil on Friday, ALBA governments voiced support for the embattled president and pledged to “mobilize … against any attempt of the oligarchy to break the constitutional and democratic order of that Central American sister republic.”

After Zelaya’s ousting on Sunday, the Spanish-language EFE news agency quoted Chavez as demanding that President Obama condemn the incident, because “the empire” – his term of choice for the United States – “has a lot to do” with what happens in Honduras.

Chavez was also quoted by Venezuela’s ABN news agency as saying those responsible for Zelaya’s overthrow were “the Honduran bourgeois, the rich who converted Honduras into a banana republic, into a political and military base for North American imperialism.”

He also expressed anger over the treatment of the Venezuelan ambassador to Honduras who, along with Cuba’s envoy, was reportedly manhandled by Honduran troops.

U.S.-Venezuela relations have been chilly for years, and Chavez continues to accuse Washington of having a hand in a 2002 coup in Caracas which briefly removed him from power. His latest remarks came just two days after the two governments agreed to resume full diplomatic representation and restore ambassadors expelled last September.

Obama put out a statement later Sunday “call[ing] on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a separate statement said the action taken against Zelaya “should be condemned by all.”

“We call on all parties in Honduras to respect the constitutional order and the rule of law, to reaffirm their democratic vocation, and to commit themselves to resolve political disputes peacefully and through dialogue,” she said. Neither Clinton nor Obama used the word “coup” to describe Sunday’s events.

Honduran lawmakers pray after swearing in congressional leader Roberto Micheletti as acting president in Tegucigalpa on Sunday, June 28, 2009. (AP Photo)

‘Total submission to the U.S.’

The president of the U.N. General Assembly, controversial Nicaraguan leftist Miguel D’Escoto, also used the opportunity to knock the U.S.

In a statement, he referred to Obama’s statement during a Summit of the Americas earlier this year regarding a new policy towards Latin America.

“Many are wondering whether this attempted coup is part of that new policy, given that it is well known that the Honduran army has a history of total submission to the United States,” D’Escoto said.

“In order to eliminate any doubt, it is absolutely necessary that President Obama immediately condemns the coup against President Zelaya,” he added.

Zelaya was removed from his home hours before a vote was due to be held on whether a national referendum should be scheduled late this year on extending the tenure of the president beyond the current single four-year term limit.

His desire to change the constitution – mirroring similar moves by Chavez and another regional leftist, Bolivian President Evo Morales – angered other institutions of the state, and the Supreme Court declared the referendum plan illegal.

Last week, military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez refused to help administer Sunday’s pre-referendum voting exercise, saying he would be violating the law to do so. The president fired him.

The Supreme Court then ordered Zelaya to reinstate Vasquez, but he refused.

On Sunday, the court in a statement said it had ordered the army to remove the president, “to defend the rule of law.” The National Assembly later in the day voted to appoint the legislature’s leader, Roberto Micheletti, as acting president until next January, when Zelaya’s term would have ended. Micheletti, a member of Zelaya’s party who had opposed the referendum plan, pledged to ensure that elections would be held, as previously scheduled, in November.

Honduran soldiers guard the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa on Sunday. (AP Photo)

‘Defer travel’

The stance of the judiciary and legislature could complicate efforts by the OAS and outside governments to reverse Zelaya’s ouster.

“If holding a poll provokes a coup, the abduction of the president and expulsion from his country, then what kind of democracy are we living in?” Zelaya was quoted as saying from Costa Rica.

A State Department official said during a conference call organized by the department that the U.S. government recognizes Zelaya, and none other, “as the duly elected and constitutional president of Honduras.”

Zelaya had cordial words for President Bush when the two met at the Oval Office months after he took office in 2006. Later he moved closer to the Chavez camp, however. When he joined ALBA last year, he jibed that he had not asked permission to do so from any “imperialist” power.

Supporters of Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya demonstrate in Tegucigalpa on Sunday June 28, 2009. (AP Photo)

Early this month Zelaya hosted an OAS meeting which took a decision to scrap a 47-year-old resolution expelling Cuba from the regional organization.

In an analysis published shortly before Zelaya’s ousting, Council on Hemispheric Affairs research associate Brian Thompson said that “by presenting his government as being under attack by right-wing elements who wish to terminate his presidency, Zelaya can divert attention from his own debatable actions.”

Moreover, he argued, “by closing his mind to the rulebook and not operating within the established legal procedures, he is also giving his opponents the green light to also decide to not play by the rules, behaving in a similarly illegal manner.”

Thompson warned that if Zelaya and his opponents “continue to up the ante, Honduras could find itself embroiled in political violence for the first time in half a century.”

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa recommended Sunday that U.S. citizens defer non-essential travel to Honduras until further notice, and advised Americans already in the country to restrict travel to necessary trips only and avoid large gatherings. The embassy would be open on Monday for emergency services only, it said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow