A Lonely Coup in Honduras

By Nick Miroff

HAVANA - When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was roused from home by military officers Sunday morning and sent off to Costa Rica in his pajamas, the banana-republic days of crude political succession seemed to be back in the Americas.

Then something different happened: Condemnation and scorn rained down on Honduras' coup plotters from every corner of the hemisphere, uniting leaders from conservative Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to Cuba's Raúl Castro to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Opposition to the Honduran coup has forged rare consensus among nations with a fractious past of bitter divisions, while injecting a new sense of purpose into regional organizations, like the Organization of American States, whose legitimacy has been recently questioned by some of its member nations.

More than anything, the episode seems destined to strengthen Hugo Chávez and other leftist leaders who responded swiftly and decisively in support of Zelaya - and whose affinity with the Honduran president was cited by coup supporters as a justification for his removal in the first place.

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And there's surely more to come.

On Thursday Zelaya is planning a dramatic return to Honduras accompanied by other Latin American heads of state, José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of Organization of American States, and Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, president of the United Nations General Assembly.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday, Zelaya called the coup against him "an act of aggression attacking the democratic will of the people." The assembly then approved a one-page resolution agreeing that none of its 192 member states would recognize a government led by anyone other than Zelaya.

His rivals in Honduras remained defiant, though, as Roberto Micheletti, sworn into the presidency by the Honduran Congress following the coup, threatened to arrest Zelaya when he returns Thursday, setting up a showdown.

Micheletti told Colombia's Caracol Radio Tuesday that Zelaya had violated the constitution and that his court-ordered removal was legal. Tensions in Honduras had been building for weeks as Zelaya, whose four-year term expires in January, sought to hold a non-binding referendum on lifting presidential term limits.

"We have not committed a coup d'etat, but a constitutional succession," he said.
Whatever the outcome, the episode has created a political opportunity for leaders throughout the hemisphere to burnish their democratic credentials, while providing a fresh sense of mission for the region's leading multinational bodies, the U.S.-based Organization of American States and the Venezuelan-led alternative pact, ALBA.

That organization was first conceived by Chávez as a rival to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), and has expanded to incorporate nine member states including Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Honduras.

For Chávez and other leaders of ALBA, the coup has provided a chance to show that the organization is capable of more than grand speeches and anti-capitalist rhetoric. Within one day of the coup, its member nations convened with Zelaya in an emergency session in Nicaragua, as Chávez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and others took turns blasting the coup leaders and vowing to restore Zelaya. Often accused by critics of eroding democratic institutions at home, the Honduran coup has allowed those leaders to act as staunch guarantors of democracy in the Americas.

But the coordinated regional response to the crisis is also likely to strengthen the U.S.-based Organization of American States, which leftist leaders in the regional had recently denounced as an outdated instrument of U.S. policy. In the wake of the crisis in Honduras, the OAS also has also played a lead role in supporting Zelaya, who is expected to attend an OAS meeting Wednesday in Washington and convene with U.S. officials.

Whether or not Obama meets with Zelaya on Wednesday, the new U.S. administration is also likely to benefit from the coup episode, providing Obama with an opportunity to show a clean break from the U.S.'s sordid legacy of support for military coups in Latin America.

Though Chavez initially tried to link the Honduran coup plotters to the U.S., the firm support for Zelaya by top U.S. officials was widely noted in Latin America, not least by Zelaya himself, who praised the Obama administration Tuesday, telling reporters "the United States has changed a great deal." Even Fidel Castro noted in a written statement Monday that the U.S. had backed the ousted Honduran president.

What remains unclear is how far leaders in the hemisphere are willing to go to restore Zelaya to power.

If Zelaya's opponents succeed in keeping him out of office, they are likely to face near-total diplomatic isolation, in addition to trade sanctions from neighboring countries that have already closed off their borders to trade with Honduras.

If Zelaya returns to office, he will likely enjoy an energized base, as thousands of supporters have taken to the streets in Honduras to protest his removal. Zelaya on Tuesday told reporters that he plans to go back to civilian life when his term expires.

Nick Miroff covers Cuba for GlobalPost. He is also a contributor to National Public Radio, and has written for the Washington Post, Mother Jones, Sporting News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.

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