Ally’s Ouster Gives Venezuela’s Chávez a Stage, an Opportunity

July 1, 2009
By Juan Forero
The Washington Post

CARACAS, Venezuela, July 1 — An ally was in trouble, toppled in a military coup. And the television cameras were rolling.

The ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya could not have been better scripted for another Latin American leader who has taken center stage: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The populist firebrand has been Zelaya’s most forceful advocate and could win international accolades if the Honduran eventually succeeds in regaining power.

Ever since Zelaya was hustled into exile Sunday by the military, Chávez has been a whirlwind of activity. Using Venezuela’s oil-fueled influence to organize summits at which he has been the central speaker, he is spreading his vision of Latin America and calling for Hondurans to rise up against those who deposed Zelaya.

“I just cannot stay here with my arms crossed,” Chávez declared in one of many speeches calling for the new Honduran government to step aside.

Luis Vicente León, a pollster and political analyst in Caracas, said the crisis is “perfect” for Chávez “because he’s not defending a tyrant; he’s defending an elected president who was overthrown. It’s showtime for the showman.”

The extent of Chávez’s influence on the Honduran crisis is unclear, many analysts said. But with Venezuelan state media publicizing his every pronouncement, some analysts say he is using the crisis to shift his countrymen’s attention from domestic problems he has struggled with at a time when his popularity has been slipping.

Indeed, Zelaya, 56, is on the surface an unlikely benefactor of Venezuela’s support. He is a rancher and logger from Honduras’s upper classes who came late to Chávez’s alliance of left-leaning nations, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which includes Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba and others.

But Chávez has characterized Zelaya as a leftist fighting for the poor and said those who overthrew him hail from an oligarchy intent on maintaining the status quo. Chávez has even taken to mockingly calling Roberto Micheletti, the lawmaker who replaced Zelaya as president, a “gorilla.”

“I swear as president: We are going to make your life impossible,” Chávez said in one speech, directing his ire at Micheletti.

Chávez has also said that the CIA could have had a hand in Zelaya’s ouster. On Monday, Chávez gave a long speech to fellow Latin American leaders, recounting U.S. interference in the region and his survival of a brief coup in 2002. The speech was televised by government stations here and CNN’s Spanish-language service.

Milos Alcalay, who was Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations until breaking with Chávez in 2004, said the Venezuelan president has quickly taken advantage of the crisis to cast himself as the leader of progressive countries battling the dark forces of Latin America’s establishment. Alcalay said that, for Chávez, there is no middle ground or nuance in his approach to the Honduran crisis — nor recognition that Zelaya had erred by pushing a nonbinding constitutional referendum opposed by the courts and his own party.

“He is, in essence, defending his ideological project, and the rest of the countries follow along,” Alcalay said, referring mainly to Venezuela’s closest allies. “He is following the vision of leadership set by Simón Bolívar, a mantle that he believes he now carries. It’s megalomania on the international stage.”

With the United States, Europe and big regional players such as Brazil and Mexico condemning the coup, Chávez’s role in propelling Zelaya’s possible comeback may be peripheral, some political analysts said. Indeed, Carlos Sosa, Zelaya’s ambassador at the Organization of American States, said the demands made on Micheletti by other Latin American leaders have been vital.

“Hugo Chávez’s role is like that of other leaders,” such as Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Obama, Sosa said in a telephone interview.

Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based policy organization that studies countries in crisis, said: “Chávez is clearly taking advantage of the opportunity, but he is not calling the shots.”

Going by the Venezuelan state media, though, it would be hard to conclude that Chávez is not spearheading the effort. Nor is there any mention of the contradiction of Chávez demanding that the Hondurans adhere to democratic principles when his closest ally is communist Cuba. Although he labels Micheletti’s government a military dictatorship, and decries the violence against protesters, state television makes no mention of a botched coup led by Chávez in 1992 in which dozens died.

León, the pollster, said the coverage is part of a larger strategy that helps the government deflect attention from grinding domestic problems it has been unable to address, including rampant crime and a troubled economy.

León said Chávez has been searching for a lift. The polling company León helps run, Datanalisis, said that more than 60 percent of Venezuelans supported Chávez in February, when he won a referendum on a constitutional amendment that permits him to run for reelection indefinitely.

But the popularity rating has slipped to slightly more than 50 percent in recent weeks, León said, as Venezuelans have become increasingly worried by what he called Chávez’s “radicalization.” Polls show that 75 percent oppose the government’s expropriations targeting landholders and big companies. An additional 65 percent oppose the president’s efforts to wrest power from local governments led by political opponents, León said.

“He is talking for the benefit of the local population because it allows him to put people’s minds, for at least a while, on other issues and not their own problems,” León said.

Still, Leon and other analysts said Chávez is often most formidable — and effective — on the international stage.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a policy group in Washington, said Chávez’s attempts at leading his allies in an effort to reinstate a deposed friend dovetail effectively with his frequent invocation of images of coups against leftist leaders.

“He puts his money where his mouth is, and there’s a grudging respect for that,” Birns said.