Political drama, Honduran style: Zelaya plans to win a comeback

If you start from the assumption that the strategy of Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, is to destroy the existing constitutional order in the country, then you must admit that he is making good progress.

If you start from the assumption that the strategy of Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, is to destroy the existing constitutional order in the country, then you must admit that he is making good progress. Negotiations with the interim government that replaced him have broken down, and there is every likelihood that the elections scheduled for next month will not be recognised by the rest of the world. If that happens, he wins.

Of course, this is not the usual narrative of the Zelaya drama, in which he is portrayed as the innocent victim of a nefarious plot by evil right-wing forces. That narrative recognises that he was sailing under false colours when he won the presidential nomination of the Liberal Party four years ago, only revealing that he was far to the left of his party after he had won the election.

But it does not consider what that meant for his time in office.

“The story so far” in standard media accounts acknowledges that Zelaya took the country’s foreign policy leftwards, reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba after 47 years and signing a treaty with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that yielded cut-price oil for Honduras.

It only rarely mentions that he failed to build a strong base of popular support among the Honduran poor, since his own party in Congress disowned him and the Honduran presidency has little direct influence over economic affairs.

And Zelaya’s actual removal from power is generally treated as a classic Latin American coup, in which a reforming leader is overthrown by an army in the service of the rich whose power he threatens. Since the Honduran army obeys the Congress and the courts, both of which are very protective of the interests of the rich, there is a bit of truth in that. What’s missing is the fact that it was all done quite legally – and the probability that Zelaya was looking for a confrontation.

Consider Zelaya’s position last spring. He had made some dramatic gestures on the international front but had accomplished almost nothing domestically, and the polls put his popular support at around 25 percent. His presidential term was ending in less than a year, and his own party was unwilling to re-nominate him.

In any case, the Honduran constitution does not permit presidents to seek a second term. His One Big Chance to change Honduran society had come and gone. What was he to do?

What he did, in fact, was to start talking about changing the constitution to remove the one-term limit. On the face of it that made no sense at all, since a) he still wouldn’t be re-nominated by the Liberal Party, and b) the constitution couldn’t possibly be changed fast enough to let him run for president again this November. Are we to assume that he had suddenly developed a selfless interest in constitutional law? Probably not.

We would be fairly safe in assuming that Zelaya is a clever man, and that his conservative opponents in the mainstream parties, the courts and the army, pickled in the arrogance that comes with long and unchallenged power, were not very alert. So when Zelaya started talking about changing the constitution, they leaped to the (utterly stupid) conclusion that he was hoping to win a second presidential term.

Ten seconds’ serious thought would have told them that his game had to be deeper than that, but they fell into his trap. All they really needed to do was wait him out. Congress could censure him, the courts would set aside any decrees he issued, and the army would refuse to assist in any referendum he tried to hold. You can’t change the Honduran constitution by a referendum anyway – and in six months Zelaya would be gone.

Instead, Congress voted almost unanimously to remove Zelaya from the presidency, the Supreme Court agreed, and the army was ordered to act. That may not have been the precise response that Zelaya was hoping to provoke, because it was even stupider than you would normally expect from those people, but it was certainly along the right lines, and he knew he could work with it.

By the middle of this year, Zelaya would have realised that his only hope of pursuing his radical political goals was to bring the entire constitutional order of Honduras into question. He couldn’t do that alone, but he might manage to fool his opponents into doing it themselves. And he did.

They expelled him in June but he slipped back into the country in September. For the past month he has been sheltering in the Brazilian embassy and negotiating as an equal with the authorities who removed him from power. Their best bet at this point would be to restore him to the presidency and let him serve out the remainder of his term, for whoever is elected in the November election will be much more to their taste, and Zelaya would be gone by January. But they are still stupid.

They have broken off talks with Zelaya, and the result will be that nobody outside the country will recognise the legitimacy of the November elections. The crisis will continue long past January, and every month the economic situation will become more desperate. It is not clear that Zelaya will ultimately emerge as the winner in this confrontation, but he has succeeded in creating the conditions in which he COULD win.

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