By Chris Tuggle

The United States has enjoyed a long and influential relationship with Honduras, more so than most other nations.  U.S. interest and military involvement in Honduras dates back to the turn of the century. During World War II, the United States signed a lend lease agreement with Honduras and also established a military presence operating a small naval base at Trujillo on the Caribbean Sea.  Over the next thirty years over 300 million in U.S. foreign assistance would flow into Honduras, and by the end of the 1980’s that figure would jump to 1.9 billion.[1] It was during the 1980’s that Honduras became the “linchpin for United States policy toward Central America.”[2] The U.S. remains Honduras’s most important trading partner and a primary source of foreign investment. Considering the long history and the traditionally close ties it was an unfortunate break with the rubric of U.S.-Honduran relations when the President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, moved-some argue pushed-Honduras into a devilish deal with the anti-democratic Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez.

Honduras’s leftward slide

On August 25, 2008, President Manuel Zelaya agreed to have Honduras become a member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the anti-American trade alliance led by President Chavez. Other members of ALBA include Nicaragua led by Daniel Ortega, Bolivia by Evo Morales, and Cuba, then represented by Vice President Lage.  The five dignitaries each spoke of the benefits of regional cooperation and the need to resist northern imperialism.  Chavez was the most polemical calling anyone who questioned the agreement a “sellout” and a “pitiyanquis,” a Puerto Rican term used to denote those who abase themselves for American interests.  Zelaya, who has drawn furious criticism from those who fear that ALBA membership will impair Honduras’s participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) which only came into effect in 2006, addressed his critics by saying: “the Honduran people do not have to ask permission of any imperialist to join the ALBA.”[3] Chavez told the crowd of approximately 30,000 Honduran spectators-many of whom had been offered 300 lempiras (US$15) by Zelaya’s Liberal Party in order to show up-“I did not come here to meddle in internal affairs, but I am just reflecting, and I cannot explain [trans. understand] how a Honduran could be against Honduras joining ALBA,” which Chavez claims is the “path of development,” and “the path of integration.”[4]

The accord, whose details have not been widely publicized, provides Honduras with access to credit lines, cheap energy and food and healthcare benefits.  In exchange for joining ALBA, Venezuela will purchase $100 million in Honduran issued bonds, the proceeds of which will provide housing assistance to the poor.  Venezuelan aid also includes access to a $30 million line of credit through the Venezuelan Economic and Social Development Bank for micro-loans to small-scale farmers.  In addition, Venezuela will supply 100 tractors-which Zelaya will be renting to the peasants of San Pedro Sula at symbolic prices[5]-, technical assistance for a government operated television station, and 4 million low energy light bulbs.  There are also multiple broad based initiatives to support healthcare and educational efforts, and preferential payment options for oil through Petrocaribe, a program Venezuela uses to subsidize oil shipments to 18 countries in the Caribbean, which Honduras joined earlier last year.  In one of the more nebulous clauses within the agreement Honduras abdicates its right to look for oil to an ALBA-operated company.

Honduras’s membership is something of a coup for ALBA as well as for Chavez.  Honduras has long been a staunch ally and strategic partner of the United States.  Zelaya’s decision to join with ALBA is therefore something of a radical paradigm shift in Honduras’ foreign policy.  Chavez started ALBA as a regional trade group initially formed to counteract the U.S. led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). It has since morphed into an alliance of leftist leaders dedicated to building an opposition to U.S. interests in the region.

Ideologue or Pragmatist

Zelaya descends from a wealthy landowning family and established himself as a logging magnate before going into politics.  He was long seen as a moderate liberal but his politics and rhetoric have become increasingly leftist.  Since taking power he has clashed with the traditional elites over his decisions to move the government toward the left under a “liberal socialist” model.[6]

Zelaya’s motives for joining ALBA appear to be the self-expressed financial desperation of the impoverished Central American country.  Zelaya claims that a lack of international assistance has forced him to accept Venezuelan aid.  In an interview with Reuters news service Zelaya said: “I have been looking for projects from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, Europe and I have received very moderate offers … that forces us to find other forms of financing like ALBA.”[7] Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high unemployment.  Starting last year its economic growth has significantly decreased, mainly due to the slowdown in the U.S. economy. The Honduran economy relies heavily on a narrow range of exports, notably bananas and coffee.  The shifts in American commodity prices have decreased export demand leaving many Honduran farmers with a severely diminished market.  The downturn also means a decrease in remittances, a financial lifeline for Honduras, accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP.[8] These developments along with an ever widening trade deficit and higher global food prices, which has severely pushed up inflation, have-according to Zelaya-forced Honduras into the arms of Chavez.

Zelaya found himself in the midst of accusations of corruption and suspicion of irregularities in public finance, while simultaneously being pressured by the U.S. and multilateral lending agencies to adopt transparency and accountability measures.  The Honduran president then began to forge closer ties with Chávez as a way of solving his countries financial difficulties without the troubling reforms.  According to the Inter Press Service “Presidential advisors reported on condition of anonymity that Zelaya had admitted in private that the lending institutions had left him no choice but to join ALBA, because he ‘had to satisfy the country’s demands, and Chávez was willing to supply funds with no conditions or audits.'”[9]

Zelaya’s finger pointing

Zelaya has habitually accused the United States of being indifferent to the problems facing Honduras and apathetic in finding solutions, he said: “The United States isn’t responding to Latin America’s needs in the area.”[10] Zelaya declared that the Merida Initiative, which among other things allocates funds to combat drug trafficking in Honduras, was “weak and ill-considered.”[11] Zelaya claims that U.S. involvement is ineffectual and hegemonic and only directed at a select few, he told Reuters: “Our decades-long relationship of dominance by the United States has not benefited all Hondurans.”

Zelaya has taken great pains to blame the United States for a lack of international support thereby forcing him to seek aid from Venezuela, as he told Reuters: “if what we have now is not giving results, we have to turn to alternatives like ALBA,”[12] Zelaya’s finger pointing accomplishes two political goals: first, it is a means of leveraging for increased assistance from the U.S.  This is true, particularly in terms of continued disbursement of funds through the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a bilateral U.S. development assistance program created in March 2002.  Continued funding through the MCA is dubious due to the lack of reforms.  Second, Zelaya’s claim of being forced into joining ALBA preempts any U.S. response and helps alleviate fears in Honduras-particularly in the business class-of a U.S. economic or diplomatic backlash.

Zelaya is wagering that the U.S. will not take action against Honduras for a couple of reasons: first, Zelaya and members of his government have taken great pains to convince everyone that joining ALBA was a last ditch effort, and effectively the fault of the United States.  Second, Latin America is not particularly high on the Obama administration’s list of priorities in light of the current U.S. economic crisis and the challenges in the Middle East and Asia.  Finally, Zelaya and members of his government have been clambering ever since Honduras joined ALBA that they still want to maintain good relations with the United States.  Elvin Santos, the vice-president, states that ALBA will have “no influence on internal politics.”[13] The much-touted fact that Honduras is the first “non-aligned” member of ALBA has served to further emphasize Santos’s argument.  What is truly illustrative, however, is Zelaya’s willingness and tendency to play both sides of the fence.

Zelaya’s Sacrifices

President Zelaya spearheaded the initiative to join ALBA, but it may have cost him more than he bargained for.  What it will cost Honduras as a nation remains to be seen.  Zelaya exhausted a great deal of political capitol-and even financial resources-assuring that it would be ratified by Congress and even sacrificed his already marginal approval rating.

There was initial resistance from most of the legislators in Congress to the ratification of ALBA, including members of Zelaya’s own party, the Partido Liberal (PL), who were concerned about increasing the political influence of Chavez in Latin America.  When the bill was first introduced on September 9th 2008 the President of the national Congress, Robert Micheletti, a member of the PL and-at the time-the favorite to be the PL’s candidate in the 2009 presidential elections raised several objections to ALBA membership “on the basis of its political, ideological and military implications.”[14] He then reversed his opinion, as did many of his supporters in Congress, prior to the actual vote on October 9th 2008.  His change of heart has been interpreted as part of political arrangement, in which support for ALBA was exchanged for Zelaya’s endorsement of Mr. Micheletti.  Zelaya’s declaration of support for Micheletti for the PL primaries in November would appear to confirm these suspicions.  Unfortunately for Micheletti, Zelaya’s endorsement was not enough.  In addition to the changed opinions of most of the PL legislators, Zelaya somehow convinced the opposition party, the Partido Nacional (PN), to not show up for the vote.

Zelaya was willing to spend not only political capitol, but also hard cash to ensure the ratification of ALBA.  The local newspaper El Heraldo published an investigative report, which revealed that receipts for $284,000 had allegedly been “distributed by the government to thirty-eight social and political leaders in exchange for support for ALBA.”[15]

To some extent this has become a personal battle for Zelaya; he has received ferocious criticism from the business class in his continued struggle “with the country’s traditional political and economic power structures.”[16] It is not only the upper class of Honduras, however, that is disappointed with his leadership; he has also sacrificed his approval rating in the eyes of the general public for the sake of ALBA.  In November of 2005, Zelaya won the presidential election with 49.9 percent of all ballots cast.  In July of 2008, a poll by CID-Gallup published in La Prensa revealed, “fewer people in Honduras are expressing satisfaction with the performance of Manuel Zelaya.”[17] His approval rating was at 34 percent, which was a four-point drop since February of that year.  Since the ratification of ALBA, Zelaya has dropped even further, as the Economist reveals: “Many ordinary Hondurans seem uncertain as to the benefits of ALBA.  A recent poll found a sharp fall in Mr. Zelaya’s approval rating, to just 25%.”[18]

The Chavez Effect

Because Zelaya so often plays both sides, it is difficult to infer what his true intentions and motives are.  He has complained about American dominance and publicly railed against the dangers of northern imperialism, and almost in the same breath blamed his nation’s problems on American indifference.  Zelaya claims that he wants to have a “frank, open, comprehensive dialogue [with the U.S.], about the problems facing us mutually.”[19] His actions, however, represent a clear willingness to follow the model of his new mentor, Hugo Chavez.  When Bolivia and Venezuela expelled the American ambassadors from their borders in September 2008, he quickly followed suit by obsequiously refusing to allow the arrival of a new ambassador; he quickly changed his mind, however, and allowed the ambassador to arrive.  Additionally, his rhetoric has grown increasingly socialist in nature. At the 11th International Encounter of Economists on Globalization and Development Problems held in Havana, Zelaya discussed the collapse of world capitalism and argued that the global economic downturn represented the resounding failure of the neo-liberal model.[20]

There has also been a noticeable breakdown in the freedom of the press in Honduras.  Zelaya has often blamed the media for his low approval ratings and accused them of having a bias against him.  In 2007 he ordered the country’s private broadcast media to devote ten two-hour long segments to airing government programs in order to “counteract the misinformation of the news media about our 17 months in office.”[21] After a reporter at a radio station known to have been critical of the government was killed, the UN Special Reporter for Freedom of Expression visited the country and issued a statement of concern.  “The murder of Carlos Salgado confirms the deterioration in press freedom in Honduras (87th in RSF world press freedom rankings). The worsening and terrible climate between the government of Manuel Zelaya and the media, unfortunately, contributes to this situation,” the worldwide press freedom organization reported.[22] Zelaya informed that same radio station correspondent that he would no longer grant her interviews. “You spend your time criticizing me,” he said. “If I was Hugo Chávez, I would have had this radio station shut down a long time ago.”[23]

Perhaps the most disturbing element of Chavez’s influence is the spread of Iranian power in Central America.  Since coming to power Chavez has worked hard to establish close ties with Iran.  He has developed a close working relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and together they have launched a number of initiatives.  The main commonality between the two men and in their foreign relations is an opposition to the United States.  In the spirit of Chavez, Honduras has taken the first steps in developing ties with Iran.  The Vice Minister of Iranian Foreign Relations, Alireza Salari Sharifabad, traveled to Honduras where he met with Patricia Rodas the Honduran Minister of Foreign Relations.  Rodas who is well known for leftist affiliations said that the goal of meeting with Sharifabad was to establish closer relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.[24] The spread of Iranian influence in Central and South America is a genuine security threat to the United States.

Zelaya’s actions have already cost him; he will be leaving power with dismal approval ratings, very few political successes, and lots of political enemies.  The conservative national party (Zelaya’s opponents who he barely beat in 2005) is in a very strong position heading into the general election campaign which will be held on November 29, 2009 but has already began in earnest (Honduras has one of the longest election seasons in Latin America).  Many political analysts doubt that Honduras will remain a member of ALBA.  What Honduras’s membership in ALBA reveals is the power and persistence of Chavez to entice, seduce, and ultimately win over a longtime American ally in order to expand his sphere of influence in Central and South America.  It also shows that the United States needs to be much more proactive in shoring up its Central and South American allies.

Chris Tuggle is a foreign affairs writer and research analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. He is a senior at Patrick Henry College, VA where he is finishing a degree in government, with a concentration in intelligence and Middle Eastern affairs.

 

 


NOTES

[1] Tim Merrill, ed. Honduras: A Country Study. Washington: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995 (accessed online on March 6, 2009 <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/hntoc.html>).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Venezuelan Analysis, “Honduras Joins Venezuela in Bolivarian Alternative Trade Group ALBA, August 27th 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] El Universal, “Honduras’ President rents Venezuelan tractors,” February 18th, 2009 (accessed online on March 6, 2009 <http://english.eluniversal.com/2009/02/18/en_pol_art_honduras-president_18A2231425.shtml>)

[6] Inter Press Service, “Honduras: President Clashes with Traditional Elite,” October 23, 2008

[7] Reuters, “Left behind by the U.S., Honduras turns to Chavez,” August 26, 2008 (accessed online on March 6, 2009 < http://www.reuters.com/article/reutersEdge/idUSN2634659620080826>)

[8] Economist, “Remittances heading downward,” January 15, 2009

[9] Inter Press Service, “Honduras: President Clashes with Traditional Elite,” October 23, 2008

[10] Hondudiario, U.S. support to combat drug trafficking “insignificant,” Zelaya says August 20, 2008 (accessed online on March 6, 2009  <http://www.mayispeakfreely.org/index.php?gSec=doc&doc_id=305>)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Reuters, “Left behind by the U.S., Honduras turns to Chavez,” August 26, 2008 (accessed online on March 6, 2009 < http://www.reuters.com/article/reutersEdge/idUSN2634659620080826>)

[13] Economist, “Zelaya plays the Chavez card,” October 30, 2008

[14] Economist, “Leaning Left,” October 20, 2008

[15] Inter Press Service, “Honduras: President Clashes with Traditional Elite,” October 23, 2008

[16] Ibid.

[17] Angus Reid Global Monitor, “Lower Rating for Honduran President Zelaya,” July 1, 2008

[18] Economist, “Zelaya plays the Chavez card,” October 30, 2008

[19] Hondudiario, U.S. support to combat drug trafficking “insignificant,” Zelaya says August 20, 2008 (accessed online on March 6, 2009  <http://www.mayispeakfreely.org/index.php?gSec=doc&doc_id=305>)

[20] Cuban News Agency, “Honduran President Harshly Criticized Current Globalization,” March 4, 2009 (accessed online on March 6, 2009  <http://www.cubanews.ain.cu/2009/0303criticapdtehondure%C3%B1o.htm>)

[21] Central American & Caribbean Affairs, “Honduras’ President Takes on Media Moguls for Access to the People,” June 28, 2007.

[22] Reporters Without Borders, “Journalist murdered following threats, government harassment of critical radio station,” October 19, 2007

[23] Ibid

[24] El Heraldo, Rodas se reunirá con vicecanciller iraní, February 27 2009, (accessed online on March 18, 2009 http://www.elheraldo.hn/Pa%C3%ADs/Ediciones/2009/02/27/Noticias/Rodas-se-reunira-con-vicecanciller-irani)

 

 

 

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