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U.S. interest in Honduras' ousted president runs deep

It was supposedly Christopher Columbus who christened the country of Honduras, its name derived from the Spanish word for "depths", referring to the deep water off its north coast.

Over the years the name has given rise to a few jokes about a country sunk in deep poverty, its democratic development held down by military coups and political corruption.

I confess to a soft spot for the place where I spent two years in the late 1980s as a young freelance journalist covering the U.S.-backed Contra war against the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Sadly, things haven't changed much since I left. Poverty and misrule remain the order of the day. Last month, soldiers stormed the official residence of President Manuel Zelaya in the middle of the night, grabbed him at gunpoint and flew him out of the country in his pajamas.

Since then the country's de facto government, led by the former head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, has plunged the country into more deep water.

By most accounts, Zelaya was largely the author of his own downfall, repeatedly defying the constitution in an effort to seek re-election. But that can be no excuse for the undemocratic way he was bundled out of the country.

Honduras remains one of the hemisphere's poorest and most corrupt nations, with a majority of the country's 7.5 million inhabitants living on less than $100 a month. Almost 300,000 Honduran immigrants live in the United States, many in Florida.

So, does any of this matter to the United States? More than you might think. The fate of Honduras is now caught in a strategic tug-of-war between two competing political forces, one tied to pro-U.S. interests in the region, and the other to a radical, leftist group of governments led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his so-called Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.

This puts Honduras in an oddly familiar situation. When I lived there the country was dubbed "USS Honduras," a dig at its Cold War role as a bastion against communist influence in Central America. At the time the U.S. Embassy in Honduras was one of the largest in the world, with a huge staff for development aid. The Unites Sates had a large military presence at Palmerola Air Base and there was a big Peace Corps program.

Relations with the United States are still close, and Washington has been supportive of Zelaya's efforts at poverty reduction. But Zelaya is an unpredictable figure. He began his mandate as a centrist reformer but made a sharp turn to the left after a battle with major oil companies over price-fixing. When oil-rich Venezuela stepped in with Chávez's low-cost PetroCaribe initiative, Zelaya was hooked.

But the lanky, Stetson-wearing rancher and logging magnate who likes to ride his Harley-Davidson around the capital is an unlikely working class hero. His wealthy family enjoys almost feudal power in the lawless southern province of Olancho.

I recall making several trips to Olancho to investigate the Contra presence: The CIA ran a secret logistics operation for the Contras at the notorious Aguacate military base there. I was warned by Honduran friends to be back in the capital before the weekend, as Olancho had quite a Wild West reputation for machetes being wielded in drunken bar brawls. It was easy to see why from the long scars visible on the backs, arms and even faces of Olancho peasants.

Like most Honduran politicians, Zelaya's instinct for natural preservation may in the end outweigh any ideological loyalty to the Chávez cause. His desire to get back home may make him agree to concessions. New elections are due in November and Zelaya's presidential term runs out in January, so his return to power would be short-lived.

But there's a lot of persuading to do. Hopes for a quick resolution dimmed when the interim government balked at a plan presented in talks mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias on Saturday to reinstate Zelaya and form a national unity government. That provides another flash of deja vu from my years in Central America. It was Arias who emerged as the chief architect of a peace plan that ended the Central American wars, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

But back then Arias' efforts were aided by the fading Cold War, which dried up funding and political support for all sides. This time Arias may have his work cut out, with neither side willing to back down. The Honduran private sector backed by local media magnates and the Roman Catholic Church all strongly oppose Zelaya's return.

But they have hugely miscalculated international sentiment.

Much depends on the Obama administration, which is anxious to solidify its new policy of building bridges with the region and defusing leftist, anti-U.S. ideological rhetoric about imperialism.

Failure to put Zelaya back in power opens the Obama administration to attack from the left. Pro-Chávez voices are already, unfairly, blaming Washington for Zelaya's ouster, calling it "Obama's first coup."

Many Hondurans may not like it, but it's in Washington's best interests to get Zelaya back ASAP.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

U.S. interest in Honduras' ousted president runs deep 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 11:09pm]

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