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The Venezuelan government announced on Saturday that Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran President overthrown in a bloodless military coup last June, will serve as the political leader of the Petrocaribe alliance. Petrocaribe was created by the government of Hugo Chávez in 2005 and allows participating countries, including some of the poorest nations in the Americas, to finance shipments of Venezuelan oil over a period of 17 to 25 years at an interest rate of 1%, paying a small fraction up front[1]. Member states can also finance part of their petroleum imports with export commodities such as rice and bananas, which are sent to Venezuela in part-exchange for market-rate oil.

Zelaya’s appointment was announced by the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolás Maduro, during a conference of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro stated that the decision to appoint Zelaya demonstrates the Venezuelan government’s commitment to “continue supporting the restoration of democracy in Honduras”[2]. Following June’s coup, President Chávez of Venezuela was one of the international community’s most vocal supporters of Zelaya, demanding his immediate reinstatement as an interim government under Roberto Micheletti took control of the poverty-stricken Central American nation.

In elections held in November of last year, Porfirio Lobo was elected Honduran President, with many nations, including Venezuela, refusing to recognise Lobo’s victory, taking place as it did in the shadow of last summer’s coup d’état. Venezuela has indefinitely suspended oil exports to Honduras, but has stated that Caracas would restore relations with Tegucigalpa if the new government permitted Zelaya to return to the political scene in the country[3].

Zelaya, a wealthy landowner in his own right, had begun to institute significant changes which sought to alleviate the plight of the millions of Hondurans living in abject poverty. These included a 60% increase in the minimum wage which provoked criticism and anger on the part of multinational companies operating in the country, who had hitherto benefitted from unchecked access to the labour of the roughly 60% of Honduras’ 8 million inhabitants who live below the poverty line.

U.S. banana-giant Chiquita, formerly The United Fruit Company, which was instrumental in pushing through the CIA-led overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 in response to his drastic land reform policies, was among the more vocal critics of Zelaya’s minimum wage increase, and maintains substantial holdings in Honduras[4].

Honduras is the poorest nation on the mainland of the American continent, with an estimated 75% of the country’s rural population living in poverty[5], and is characterised by “an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high un- and underemployment”[6]. President Lobo, educated at the University of Miami, was quick to exonerate those members of the Honduran military who took part in the coup which toppled Manuel Zelaya, confirming that they would not face prosecution for their part in the overthrow and promising to put Honduras “on the path to democracy”, in February of this year[7].

During his inauguration in January, Lobo publicly thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the backing he had received from the government of Barack Obama following his victory at the polls in November 2009, while Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela were among a group of several Latin American nations who boycotted Lobo’s swearing-in and refuse to recognise the Honduran government, considering it illegitimate[8].

The Obama administration is extremely unpopular in much of Latin America, with widespread anger at the decision to place U.S. troops on the ground at several military bases in Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia as part of the United States’ “war on drugs”. Obama’s decision to extend crippling sanctions against Cuba, in spite of having made noises to the effect that relations could thaw between Washington and Havana during his campaign, has also done little to alter the image of his administration in a region which has seen countless U.S. and U.S.-backed military interventions in preceding decades which have left deep physical and emotional scars which endure to the present day.

Honduras had been receiving oil shipments from Venezuela under a Petrocaribe agreement until dispatches were suspended following last June’s coup. Zelaya said of his new role as political head of Petrocaribe, “I am going to accept this nomination and this appointment from President Chávez with a view to strengthening the democratic processes in this continent”. Commenting on the role Chávez played in supporting the ousted President following the coup, Zelaya remarked, “it’s false that Hugo Chávez came looking for me, I went looking for him in order to help Latin America”.

Interviewed after the conclusion of three hours of talks with Zelaya held at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Chávez affirmed that Porfirio Lobo’s electoral victory in Honduras “was no defeat” and that Zelaya is still the “legitimate President of Honduras”.

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. – Petrocaribe, http://www.pdvsa.com/index.php?tpl=interface.sp/design/readmenuprinc.tpl.html&newsid_temas=48

[2] Designan a Zelaya como nuevo presidente del Consejo Político de Petrocaribe, http://www.telesurtv.net/noticias/secciones/nota/67940-NN/designan-a-zelaya-como-nuevo-presidente-del-consejo-politico-de-petrocaribe/

[3] Chávez contrata al ex presidente hondureño Zelaya para dirigir Petrocaribe, http://www.cnnmexico.com/mundo/2010/03/06/chavez-contrata-al-ex-presidente-hondureno-zelaya-para-dirigir-petrocaribe

[4] Chiquita in Latin America, http://www.counterpunch.org/kozloff07172009.html

[5] Honduras, http://www.ifad.org/media/success/honduras_2.htm

[6] CIA – The World Factbook – Honduras, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ho.html

[7] Presidente de Honduras exonera militar que executou golpe, http://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2010/02/25/presidente-de-honduras-exonera-militar-que-executou-golpe.jhtm

[8] Lobo Assumes Presidency as U.S., Latin America Split, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-01-27/lobo-set-for-presidency-as-u-s-latin-america-split-update1-.html

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The Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has been overthrown and expelled to neighbouring Costa Rica following a bloodless coup staged by the Honduran military on Sunday morning and backed by the country’s supreme court.[1] The overthrow of Zelaya constitutes the first military coup in Central America since the conclusion of the Cold War, and has been met with angry protests in Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital.[2]

Protesters defied an overnight curfew imposed by the interim government to register outrage in the wake of the coup, protesting vociferously outside the presidential palace. Some erected barricades around the palace, brandishing sticks and chanting as soldiers in full riot gear looked on from inside the presidential compound. Honduras’ congress has already named Roberto Micheletti, congressional president at the time of the coup, as the country’s president. Micheletti was quick to impose a curfew taking effect on Sunday and Monday night, however hundreds of protesters defied it, burning tyres and vowing to stay in the streets until Zelaya is reinstated.

In response to his ousting, Zelaya declared “I am the president of Honduras. My power will not be taken by a group of soldiers. This is a regression of more than 50 years for the democratic process. I want to return to my country and restore a state of order for the Honduran people”.[3] Zelaya enjoys widespread support among the poor of a country the CIA’s World Factbook describes as “the second poorest country in Central America”, with “an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high unemployment”.[4] The country’s annual GDP per capita stands at $4,400, roughly equivalent to Bolivia and Sri Lanka, however this statistic belies entrenched inequality which has existed ever since Spanish colonisation of the territory began in the early sixteenth century.

Zelaya had attempted to dismiss General Romero Vasquez, the head of the country’s armed forces, following a dispute over a referendum proposed by Zelaya that would allow him to seek re-election when his current term expires in 2010. The poll was due to be held on Sunday, and would have permitted Zelaya to remain in office for a subsequent four-year term if approved.

The Honduran supreme court gave approval for the coup, with the military detaining Zelaya in his pyjamas on Sunday morning before forcing him onto a plane bound for Costa Rica. Zelaya has attributed blame for the coup to “rightwing oligarchs”, and the Honduran establishment has indeed backed the military overthrow of the nation’s democratically elected head of state.

Although elected as a conservative in 2006, the Honduran head of state has sought closer alignment with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’s brand of ‘21st century socialism’ in recent years, and the coup received the backing of the pro-U.S. Honduran establishment. The United States’ government, however, was swift to condemn the coup, as was the Organisation of American States and the European Union. President Barack Obama affirmed that, “Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference”, stating that Washington only recognised Zelaya is president.

Zelaya had condemned the United States’ refusal to support Cuba’s return to the 34-member Organisation of American States at a meeting of the OAS in Honduras earlier this month. Cuba was banished from the group in 1962 following heavy U.S. pressure on Latin American nations to expel Fidel Castro’s government from the organisation or risk economic reprisals.

Honduras, an impoverished Central American nation of nearly 8 million, was a staunch U.S. ally during the 1980’s, during which time its military government received substantial U.S. aid in order to assist with crushing internal rebellions common to the region during this period. The United States maintains a military base in the country where some 600 troops are stationed, predominantly to assist with “humanitarian and disaster relief operations” according to Reuters[5].

Zelaya has already met with Hugo Chávez and other Latin American heads of state including Bolivian president Evo Morales and Ecuadorian leader Rafael Correa at an emergency summit in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, which began on Sunday. Chávez, who was himself the victim of a U.S.-backed yet eventually abortive coup d’état in 2002, was swift to condemn the overthrow and placed troops at the Venezuelan embassy in Tegucigalpa on high alert. Chávez said Honduran soldiers arrested the Cuban ambassador and left the Venezuelan ambassador on the side of a road having beaten him during Sunday’s coup[6].

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Manuel Zelaya expulsado de Honduras en golpe de Estado, http://www.larepublica.net/app/cms/www/index.php?pk_articulo=26338

[2] Protesters demand return of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/29/manuel-zelaya-honduras-coup-protests

[3] Manuel Zelaya expulsado de Honduras en golpe de Estado, http://www.larepublica.net/app/cms/www/index.php?pk_articulo=26338

[4] Central Intelligence Agency – The World Factbook; Honduras, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/HO.html

[5] Honduras isolated over Zelaya ouster, http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE55R24E20090629

[6] Hugo Chávez vows to ‘bring them down’ after seeing Honduran ally ousted in military coup, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/28/honduras-zelaya-coup-chavez

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