Venezuela and the Honduran Coup
Military forces arrested Honduran President Manuel Zelaya at his home early Sunday morning, marking a sea change for the country. Prior to the coup, Zelaya had been attempting to call a national referendum on whether to change the constitution. Though Zelaya still had backing from many leftist organizations in the country, he lacked the support of the Congress, the Supreme Court and the military -- all of which maintained that his actions were unconstitutional. His decision to go forward with the referendum in the face of such strong opposition pushed the situation to a climax, ending with his exile to Costa Rica.
The situation has prompted howls of objections, particularly from leftist leaders in Latin America - with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the forefront. Though Chavez's promises of a military response following the arrest of Zelaya -- a fellow leftist -- have made headlines, his ability and will to intervene are both extremely constrained. Chavez himself has mentioned limits to his willingness to intervene in the situation, declaring that hostilities would be inevitable if the Honduran military violated the sanctity of the Venezuelan embassy or murdered the Venezuelan ambassador.
Chavez likes to link Venezuela to any and all leftist leaders in the region and to rattle sabers when any of those leaders are threatened. The Honduran coup, however, is deeply entrenched in domestic politics, and Chavez's ability to take serious action is limited by uncertainties in the political situation he faces in Venezuela. Just as in a 2008 incident between Colombia and Ecuador (when Colombian forces crossed the border in pursuit of members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Chavez can make statements but is not able to put substantial forces into play.
There have been isolated and unsubstantiated reports that Venezuelan and Nicaraguan personnel might have been supporting Zelaya in Honduras as hostilities were intensifying, but there is nothing to suggest that any kind of meaningful troop presence or interference was a factor in the day's events. Indeed, sources in Venezuela have revealed that even Venezuelan military personnel lack confidence in the country's ability to leverage the troop transport aircraft that would be required to establish a meaningful force in Honduras.
Because even Chavez is unable to intervene effectively, the situation in Honduras remains localized. The military immediately turned control of the country over to the Congress, which appointed its leader as the interim head of state. Therefore, it does not seem likely that this situation will turn into a military grab for power -- a fact that should bring sighs of relief to a region where the destructive military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s are remembered well.
This also should not be read as a symbolic or tide-turning failure of the Latin American left, which is far from being a united ideological bloc. With center-leftists leading successful regimes in Brazil and Chile, the myth of a rising, unified wave of extreme leftism in Latin America is just that. Though the coup in Honduras could invigorate opposition movements in leftist-led countries throughout the region -- particularly in countries like Venezuela, which are experiencing serious economic difficulties due both to populist excesses and the troubled global economy -- it should not be taken as a part of a larger trend. If other governments in Latin America fall, it will be a result of their own spiraling, domestic dramas rather than a domino effect from Sunday's events in relatively isolated Honduras.
The fact is that regional cohesion in Latin America is very difficult to achieve. With massive geographic barriers separating Latin American countries and the economic challenges facing each leader, there are enormous obstacles to functional cooperation and pressing concerns to attend to at home. Ultimately, the challenges facing Latin American countries in 2009 might lead to military intervention, as in Honduras. But regime stability very often depends on domestic factors -- and all the leftist alliances in the world cannot save a leader who rejects the authority of every other branch of his government.