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Posted by zeakster on October 6, 2009

Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) — If Honduras descends into civil war, we can thank Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and credit Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with an assist.

Pushing the Central American nation to the brink is precisely what Chavez accomplished when he persuaded Lula to welcome ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital, last month.

Reasonable people can argue whether Zelaya deserved to be tossed out of office. The fact is his ouster was legal, according to a detailed report issued by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

The Honduran Congress has the authority to rebuke the president and decide constitutional intent, the report says. “In the case against Zelaya, the National Congress interpreted the power to disapprove of the conduct of the president to encompass the power to remove him from office, based on the results of a special, extensive investigation,” it states.

Chavez and Lula engaged in wise-guy diplomacy. Their actions violated international laws by helping Zelaya enter the country illegally. And they disrupted the economy of Central America’s second-poorest country, which was already reeling from the global economic crisis.

Besides acting unethically, the two Latin leaders showed they aren’t serious diplomats. We’ll see if this inaugurates a new era in which Brazil and Venezuela throw their weight around and increasingly interfere with their neighbors’ politics. If so, they will resemble the U.S., which Latin leaders have long criticized for butting into the region’s internal affairs by propping up or taking out national leaders.

Rough Transition

This much is already clear: Hondurans now seem farther away from a safe transition to a new democratically elected leader who adheres to the country’s constitution.

Don’t expect Zelaya to regain the presidency with full powers before the national election scheduled for Nov. 29. Less than 50 percent of Hondurans support their former leader and his approval rating has tumbled, according to a CID-Gallup poll taken two days after Zelaya was ousted in late June. Hondurans are evenly split about whether he deserved to be forcibly removed from office.

Zelaya provoked his opponents by trying to bend the constitution so he could seek another term as president. He was dragged out of the presidential palace in his pajamas and flown out of the country.

Sneaking In

His ambition endures, which is why Zelaya snuck back into the country last month in advance of the national election. He had tried unsuccessfully to re-enter Honduras in the three months since he was booted out. His most recent attempt might have failed too if the Brazilians hadn’t welcomed him inside their embassy.

By opening the doors to Zelaya, Lula allowed himself and his country to be used to promote the individual aspirations of a foreign leader. Zelaya’s situation in Brazil’s embassy is illegal, according to Jorge Zaverucha, a political scientist who directs the Center for Study of Coercive Institutions at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil.

Brazilian authorities claim they aren’t violating international law because they didn’t welcome Zelaya as an exile. They have refused to define his current political status by arguing they are simply offering him “humanitarian shelter.”

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations doesn’t say that a diplomatic mission should take in a legally deposed president and let him use the shelter as his political campaign headquarters.

Taking Advantage

More important, Article 41 of the convention states that anyone enjoying the same privileges and immunity as Zelaya in Brazil’s embassy has “a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the host country.

A leader who disrespected his own country’s constitution can’t be expected to follow international rules of conduct.

Protected by the inviolability of the Brazilian embassy, which is considered foreign soil in Honduran territory, Zelaya has given speeches to his followers from inside the mission, made political phone calls, held numerous media interviews and even incited a rebellion against the de facto government.

In turn, acting president and former head of Honduras’ National Congress, Roberto Micheletti, has also committed his share of mistakes. By exiling Zelaya to another country, Micheletti clearly violated the Honduran constitution.

Suspending Civil Rights

Then in late September Micheletti ordered military troops to shut down pro-Zelaya radio and television stations, banned protests for 45 days and suspended other civil rights. As a result, Honduras has reached a political dead end.

The most obvious way out of the stalemate is for a member of the international community to mediate an agreement between the two men to respect the outcome of the election. Achieving even that modest goal seems difficult at this point.

Micheletti is expected to allow members of the Organization of American States to enter the country this week to attempt to mediate a solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, Hondurans grow increasingly indifferent about the coming election. Only 43 percent of eligible voters say they will cast ballots and almost half believe the elections will be fraudulent.

One of Central America’s most unpopular presidents — second only to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, another of Chavez’s pals by the way — Zelaya knows he can’t win a presidential election any time soon. Micheletti is just an interim political figure supported by less than a third of the population and, thus, unsuited to run for president. Neither man has a stake in smoothing the way for elections.

Making things even worse, President Barack Obama’s administration, which correctly criticized Venezuela and Brazil for letting Zelaya into Honduras, says it won’t recognize the scheduled November election unless the political crisis is resolved.

That gives carte blanche to Zelaya. The more turmoil Zelaya creates, the closer to civil war the country will be.

(Alexandre Marinis, political economist and founding partner of Mosaico Economia Politica, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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