On May 28, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned home nearly two years after the June 2009 actions that removed him from office for violations of the national constitution.
Accompanied by Venezuela’s foreign minister Nicholas Maduro and delivered via Air Hugo Chavez, Zelaya was greeted by thousands of cheering admirers. He returned under a deal struck with current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo on May 22. The agreement was brokered with the assistance of the unlikely combination of democratic Colombia and authoritarian Venezuela, and it enjoys the blessing of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Los Angeles Times’s reaction is typical of the sunny U.S. press reaction to Zelaya’s return, calling the event important “because it demonstrates the region’s intolerance for military coups, which were once common in Latin America.” Friends of the Latin America left are again casting Zelaya as a national hero. Very few are able to recall Zelaya’s serial violations of checks and balances and constitutional order or the destabilizing support tendered by Hugo Chavez’s petro-political slush fund.
The leftist, pro-Chavez former chief executive remains a polarizing figure. After years of scheming a vindicating return to influence, Zelaya will now undertake to energize a leftist, anti-American coalition centered around the National Popular Resistance Front.
Zelaya wasted little time in reasserting that his removal from office in 2009 was the work of a conspiracy while glossing over his direct assault on the institutional and constitutional foundations of Honduran democracy. He informed sympathetic media that “this coup d’état [in June 2009] was made by the right wing of the United States.”
Zelaya also indicated that he is readying a “First Gentleman” strategy for returning to power made popular by the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife and current Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The deal allowing Zelaya back includes talks towards changing the constitution to allow presidential re-election, but it is unclear if this will affect the ex-president. Barring any changes, Zelaya supporters want his wife Xiomara Castro to run for president.
Zelaya’s return might open a door for shady backroom deal-making between President Lobo and Zelaya in which political chiefs (caudillos) negotiate to lift constraints and safeguards imposed by the Honduran constitution, checks and balances, and a two-party system to establish a system of strong executive figures, weak institutions, and subservient political parties.
Were Zelaya an authentic democrat and reformer, his return would be welcome news. But he is not. He is a Chavez wannabe without Venezuela’s oil riches. His return will intensify internal conflict, social tensions, and potential human rights violations.
The storm clouds of future political turmoil in Honduras are already forming despite the current sunny mood at the State Department and in the OAS.