Coups no longer the norm in Latin America

Friday, July 10, 2009 | 8:54 a.m. CDT; updated 1:57 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 10, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: Masked, armed soldiers awakened Honduran President Manual Zelaya two Sundays ago at 5:30 a.m. and expelled him from the country in his pajamas. He had only three months to go before his term expired. He wanted to hold a referendum on whether the Honduran people thought another referendum should be held to reform the Constitution. Political and business leaders thought he was paving the way to keep himself in power for more than one term. They were also concerned that he was moving Honduras too far to the left. In former times, coups were a way of life in Latin America, but things have changed. The new government in Honduras has been condemned by the Organization of American States, the European Union and the United Nations. There is a very big meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica (Thursday) between President Zelaya and his supposed successor Roberto Micheletti. What is the purpose of the meeting and what is likely to happen?

Chrissie Long, political reporter, Tico Times, San Jose, Costa Rica: Zelaya and Micheletti, together with the delegation from Honduras and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, will retreat behind closed doors and begin a mediation process. Arias has said he is willing to go however long it will take to resolve the conflict. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for mediating peace in Central and Latin America. He is also seen, from the U.S. perspective, as a neutral force. He is not part of the ALBA nations.

Loory: Explain what the ALBA nations are and its concept.

Frank Daniel, correspondent, Reuters, Caracas, Venezuela: Hugo Chavez established the trade group called ALBA, set up as an alternative to the Free Trade Agreement with the Americas. Chavez managed to bring together a small group of leftist governments and it has slowly grown under his leadership. The main member is Venezuela, oil rich and quite generous with its friends. Cuba, the other political heavyweight, and small countries like Bolivia and Ecuador joined recently. For students of Latin America, it was a surprise when Honduras joined because it has long been close to the U.S.

Loory: Zelaya was known as a right-of-center politician when he took office three years ago but he shifted to the left. What happened?

Rossana Guevara, director, Alianza Por El Cambio (Alliance for Change); former reporter, Televicentro, Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Everybody here thinks he was playing the two sides all the time for over three years. Then, he invited President Chavez to Honduras and declared that he was a leftist, and that Honduras would join the ALBA countries about a year ago.

Loory: And the political establishment was not very happy. Is that the reason for the ouster?

Guevara: Definitely no. Honduras is very conservative; however, we understand that our democracy is not perfect. Our democracy needs to become more participatory, but we would rather start reconstructing democracy instead of having a Communist regime.

Loory: It seems that Zelaya, in his drive for constitutional reform, did want to make the country more participatory. Is that not so?

Guevara: That is what he said. However, we don’t believe him because every time he said something, he did the opposite. Analysts here say he was trying to maintain himself in power, and change our political system into a populist totalitarian system. Why didn’t he do this at the beginning of his government, instead of talking on behalf of the poor people only six months ahead of giving up power?

Loory: Is the coup not seen as anything but an undemocratic overthrow of a government by other countries?

David Adams, Latin American correspondent, St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, Madrid, Spain: Zelaya, by all accounts, achieved absolutely nothing in his first years in office. He had plenty of friends, including people abroad, who tried to help him because he was viewed in the beginning as a potentially good leader for Honduras. But, he found himself entering his last year in office, having whittled away popular support and demonstrating tremendous incompetence, but he was clearly enjoying being in power. The Zelaya family ruled Honduras, with big logging interests, so he is used to having it his own way.

Loory: Does that justify a coup?

Adams: No. The coup reminds me of what happened in Caracas in 2002. There was a semi-constitutional effort to push President Chavez out of office, which went astray and anti-constitutional forces destroyed all notions of constitutionality. They dissolved the Supreme Court and Congress. What began constitutionally, perhaps as a movement to prevent Zelaya from breaking the constitution himself, went off the rails.

Guevara: Zelaya asked if we wanted to change the constitution or not. The other powers — congressional, judicial, the public ministry and the electoral tribunal — decided this was not constitutional. They continued repeating this to the president; however, he didn’t pay any attention and didn’t respect the law.

Loory: Zelaya says that he was not planning to remain in office himself, only to ask the people if they wanted to call a constitutional assembly. What was unconstitutional?

Guevara: A constitutional assembly in Honduras can only be made when there is a coup d’etat. Zelaya was trying to provoke a coup, and what happened was a counter-coup. If he called for the constitutional assembly, he easily could have dissolved the other powers.

Loory: What can be the outcome that can smooth this whole thing over?

Long: This is an ingrained conflict that will not have an easy solution; Arias said that himself. He was not willing to discuss in depth the agenda or the process of coming to that resolution. Arias stumbled when he was asked how he would receive the men who claim to be president of Honduras. He did say that Zelaya is the constitutional president and has been very vocal about condemning the coup. Whether they can arrive at a solution in a few days depends on who is asked. Hondurans say it is too complicated; political analysts here say Arias has negotiated much more complicated issues in the past.

Loory: Do you see the possibility of a resolution here?

Adams: There are a tremendous amount of unclear legal issues. Honduras is an extremely small country and one of the poorest in Latin America, so it is hard to see how President Micheletti can keep up his resistance to outside forces if the country is going to be isolated diplomatically and economically. Fortunately, there are new elections due to be held soon. Some possibilities to compromise exist, perhaps amnesty for Zelaya because he could potentially face jail if he returns to the country. Perhaps, if he agrees to step down at the end of his term and not raise the referendum issue again. But, no one trusts him in Honduras.

Loory: Chavez has canceled oil shipments to Honduras and the U.S. has canceled military aid to Honduras and is reviewing economic aid. Chavez and Washington seem to be on the same wavelength here.

Daniel: To a certain degree. The U.S. has taken the diplomatic upper hand by proving to Latin America that President Obama’s promise to turn a new page is not just empty words. This is the first time in living memory that the U.S. has recognized a coup in Latin America for what it is, and appears to have no participation in it whatsoever. That is good for the region and puts Chavez in a difficult position. It is harder to take his typical stance of criticizing the U.S. as an empire that supports undemocratic processes. After a typically aggressive response to the coup, Chavez put his troops on alert and threatened retribution if his ambassador was attacked in Honduras. He has since taken a surprisingly low-key role.

Loory: In earlier times, the kind of chaos we see now in Honduras led easily to civil war or violence in many a country, but so far all of the protest has been almost completely peaceful. Maybe this offers some hope for change in the long run.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.



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