Regional Tensions Complicate Honduras Power Struggle

Almost five months since a military coup in Honduras ousted President Mel Zelaya, the country remains politically unstable. On June 28, Latin America woke up to the shocking news of the overnight military coup overthrowing the democratically elected President of the Central American nation. Resolving the power struggle in Honduras will be difficult, as the small nation is currently at the center of the ongoing regional tensions between the United States, Venezuela, and their respective allies.

The coup was immediately condemned by the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States and the European Union, and no country has recognized the Roberto Micheletti administration. President Obama declared the coup illegal, and stated, “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transitions.”

Despite claiming that it rejects the coup, America has refrained from acting too forcefully to restore Zelaya, one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s main allies in the region. Honduras, prior to the coup, was a member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Venezuelan-led group of countries which aims to promote socialism and reduce the influence of the U.S. in the region.

The United States has removed some aid to Honduras, but has stopped short of officially declaring the event a military coup, which would require removing all aid. Furthermore, the U.S. has decided to recognize the November 29 elections to elect the country’s new President despite Zelaya’s protests. Throughout the entire post-coup process, Zelaya has often questioned the U.S.’s commitment to restoring him to power. In Congress, Senator Jim Demint (R-S.C.) has strongly advocated that the U.S. desist from taking any actions favoring the restitution of the ousted President.

Much debate has surrounded the causes and legality of the coup. President Mel Zelaya had less than a year left in office and could not seek reelection. However, in the upcoming November 29 elections, he sought to include a non-binding “consultation” during which the Honduran people would decide whether they supported Presidential reelection.

The nation’s Supreme Court and Congress deemed the consultation illegal, as it violated Article 42 of the Constitution, which prohibits Presidents from seeking reelection. Zelaya claimed he had no intention of seeking reelection. However, his insistence on having the consultation on the November ballot led many to question his motives, fearing it would eventually usher in a Chavez-style authoritative government. This ultimately led the Supreme Court to secretly order the detention of the President on June 26, with the coup taking place two days later.

Several groups have attempted to mediate the conflict. Initially, Secretary General of the OAS Jose Miguel Insulza strongly pushed for the immediate reinstatement of Zelaya, but to no effect. Later, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias took a more neutral approach, but his mediation also failed.

The latest failed attempt has been a U.S.-brokered deal that would create a united government with the possibility of Zelaya returning to power pending Congressional approval. However, this deal broke down a week later once Zelaya realized he would not have enough support from the Micheletti-leaning Congress. The most likely outcome will be for Micheletti to remain in power until a new President, who will be elected on November 29, takes office.

Without Zelaya, Chavez has lost one of his main allies in the region. Without Honduras, ALBA has the support of Guatemala, Cuba, Ecuador, and Bolivia. On the other side, America’s major allies are Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Peru. Most countries, including Brazil and Argentina, have attempted to bridge the gap between the two sides.

Venezuela and the U.S. are in constant competition to expand their influence in the region. Venezuela, with the help of its oil revenues, donates generously to the region. The United States offers aid and economic cooperation, having approved free trade agreements with Chile, Peru and Mexico.

Since April 2007, a free trade agreement with Colombia has awaited U.S. Congressional approval. Then, President Bush strongly supported rewarding Colombia’s loyalty with this agreement, but the Democratically-controlled Congress is unlikely to approve the deal anytime soon. The U.S. has also helped Mexico and Colombia crack down on their illegal drug problems.

Another source of conflict between Venezuela and the U.S. has been the recent military deals in Latin America. In August, Russia signed three weapons contracts with Cuba and Venezuela. A few weeks later, the U.S. reached an agreement with Colombia to open three new U.S. military bases in the country. Venezuela, which borders Colombia, claimed this would destabilize the region, with Brazil and Chile also condemning the new bases.

Although lower oil prices and a more popular American President have caused Chavez to tone down his rhetoric in the past year, tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela will continue to make it difficult for Latin America to address its political and economic problems.

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