The State of Honduras under Zelaya- In the Pink?

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Under current Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the country has experienced multiple changes that demonstrate a new penchant for leftist policies. Honduras’ strong historic ties with the United States have gradually weakened in recent months as relations have improved with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. The nation is undergoing a period of political redirection, which could potentially foreshadow the rise of the “Pink Tide” in Central America.

The Archetypal Banana Republic
Honduras was the first country to be aphoristically tagged with the sobriquet ‘banana republic.’ The pejorative moniker, which came to categorize almost all the countries of Central America, originated from Honduras’ increasing dependence on the international banana trade. At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 60 percent of the country’s exports were bananas. In addition, multinational corporations such as the United Fruit Company (UFC), extended their influence well beyond the trade sector and became, in effect, the pro-consul of the country. The UFC, now Chiquita Brands International, has a long history of political involvement in the nation, including the 1975 allocation of $2.5 million in bribes to the Honduran president at the time, Oswaldo López Arellano, in order to obtain a sweetheart of a banana deal. In not cracking down on corrupt U.S. commercial interests in Honduras, U.S. authorities strengthened ties with the Central American government and formed a relationship that has outlasted the banana wars.

Honduran Relationship with the United States
Despite this last minute history, Honduras has been a longtime supporter of U.S. international interests. As the U.S. Department of State website maintains, “Honduras is an ally of the United States and generally supports U.S. interests in international fora.” In 1985, Honduras backed the U.S. decision to oppose a Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and a leftist insurgency in El Salvador. Honduras became one of the first nations to sign an International Criminal Court agreement with the U.S., and the U.S. has maintained a military presence at the Enrique Soto Cano Air base. In 2005, Honduras also became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to sign an agreement with the Multinational Challenge Corporation (MCC), in which this U.S. government organization allocated $215 million to help Honduras improve its transportation system and enhance its agricultural development.

Economically, Honduras is inextricably linked with the United States. Nearly two-thirds of the foreign investment in Honduras comes from this country, and the U.S. is also Honduras’ chief trading partner, specializing in the maquila industry (yarn and textiles). In 2004, Honduras signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the U.S., eliminating tariffs and external barriers between the two countries while promoting regional integration. The multifaceted nature of U.S. influence in Honduras should have, but did not guarantee a strong relationship between the two nations.

However, in spite of these connections, ties between the United States and its southern trading partner have recently been less than amicable. On March 23, 2008, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a health alert, blocking cantaloupes produced by Agropecuaria Montelíbano, a company that exports 3,000 containers of melons a year to the U.S. and the European Union. What should have been no more than a minor setback between U.S.-Honduran relations amassed to more when Zelaya dramatically bit into a melon on national television to display the “injustice” of the FDA restriction. Venezuela, perhaps in an act of showmanship, offered to buy all of the melons originally slated to go to the United States, which provoked further ire from the FDA. After four months of research, the FDA has yet to prove their accusations correct, which has left Agropecuaria Montelíbano in limbo.

A recent diplomatic row between Honduras and the U.S. has added fuel to the fire. On July 24, 2008, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Charles A. Ford declared that he often had felt intimidated during his three-year stint in Honduras. These statements elicited outrage from Zelaya, who declared that the diplomat’s comments were “barbarous.” He further charged that the U.S. is to blame for the inter-American drug trade because they create the demand for drugs, regardless of where they are produced. Zelaya has since declared that the amount of U.S. aid that Honduras receives does not “make us vassals” or give Ford the right to humiliate the nation. The use of such strong rhetoric, including terms that evoke feudal power arrangements, forecasts a rocky future in relations between the two countries. In addition to these recent fissures, the increasingly close relationship between Honduras and Venezuela does not bode well in Washington.

Stronger Connections in Caracas
In January of 2008, Chávez toured Central America, visiting Nicaragua, Guatemala, and for the first time, Honduras. After his trip, Chávez proclaimed that “things were changing in Central America, because before we [Venezuela] were blocked from here.” He further stated that Nicaragua, under leftist President Daniel Ortega, was “the epicenter of changes.” These statements refer to the Venezuelan president’s warm reception by the governments of the region, a welcome that implied a potential for increased collaboration between the countries visited and socialist Venezuela. Chávez’s remarks, especially regarding Honduras, have proved right on point; in the months that followed this trip the relationship between Honduras and Venezuela became indisputably stronger.

On January 28, 2008, Zelaya announced that Honduras was becoming a member of Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan-engineered oil-subsidy initiative. The Honduran Congress ratified this action on March 13, with 69 votes in favor of the agreement. Under its terms, Honduras has 90 days to pay Venezuela for 60 percent of the oil’s selling price, and 25 years to pay the remaining 40 percent with a two-year grace period and a one percent fixed interest rate. Petrocaribe has grown to encompass 19 members since its origination in 2005, including the mid-July additions of Guatemala and Costa Rica. The soft-loan oil initiative is attractive to many Central American and Caribbean countries because of its preferential oil prices and economic accessibility, a necessary condition for many of the region’s indebted nations. As a member of Petrocaribe, Honduras now buys 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Venezuela, the fifth-largest oil producer in the world.

In a June meeting with Chávez in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya stated, “[Petrocaribe] is an alternative that provides great opportunities to alleviate the economic crises and face the volatility of the world’s food market.” Just as Venezuela bought cantaloupes from Honduras after the U.S. FDA ban, the Venezuelan oil initiative provided Caracas with the opportunity to bring about one small solution to the world food and resource crisis while simultaneously achieving a public relations victory. In light of the lack of U.S. initiatives to combat the region’s economic problems, it is not surprising that Honduras eventually turned to Venezuela. However, it is unclear to what extent Honduras will depend on its southern neighbor and begin to build a broader and more meaningful relationship, rather than axiomatically looking to its traditional northern ally.

Zelaya Opens the Door
On July 30, 2008, Zelaya announced that Honduras would join the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of our America (ALBA). Often referred to as Chávez’s brainchild, ALBA is the Venezuelan response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and seeks to integrate Latin American nations into a high-minded, development and foreign policy making scheme. As of now, its membership is limited to five countries, not including Honduras. The announcement marked the fruition of weeks of speculation that Honduras would join Nicaragua and become the second Central American nation to join the group.

Zelaya was quick to mention that Honduras’ joining still needed to be ratified by its National Congress, an announcement made more necessary by the internal divisions it has incited from a number of pro-U.S. groups and individuals throughout the country. Unquestionably, the Honduran bid has earned Zelaya national criticism both within and outside of his party, Partido Liberal. The opposition has claimed that Zelaya has started Honduras on a “political project” that could potentially jeopardize relations with the United States. Even members of Zelaya’s own party have raised serious doubts about the move. Roberto Micheletti, the president of congress and a ranking PL official, has expressed his vigorous opposition. Others, such as María Elena Mondragón, the ex-president of the Banco Central de Honduras, have said that the move does not bring any economic benefits to Honduras and that if ALBA was truly a worthwhile initiative, Brazil and Chile surely would have joined by now.

The contentious issue has raised doubts with some about Zelaya’s political credo. With Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, Honduras would be joining a group of some of the most avid critics of the U.S. in Latin America. Zelaya invited the presidents of present members of ALBA to come to Honduras on August 25, at which time he will formally accept the offer extended to him by President Chávez. However, Honduran membership in ALBA is still uncertain, as 65 of 128 deputies in National Congress have expressed their rejection of their country’s inclusion. These deputies will be the deciding factor in determining Zelaya’s acceptance of ALBA membership when they vote whether to confirm it or not after the August 25 ceremony, as per Article 205, line 30 of Honduras’ constitution. However, it is certain that with this presidential acceptance, Zelaya has further distanced himself from the U.S. – a move which will reverberate into the future.

Has the Pink Tide Infiltrated Central America?
Are Zelaya’s recent decisions truly for the good of Honduras, or is he merely embracing the ideological shift to the left that is emerging throughout Latin America? Zelaya posits that the opportunities presented to Honduras by Venezuela are in the best interest of the Honduran people. However, in spite of appealing to economic and social interests, Zelaya must be aware that closing the gap between his country and Venezuela sends a politically charged statement to Washington that is reflective of Honduras’ waning commitment to its northern neighbor. If Zelaya had wanted to avoid speculation on his recent leftist moves, in light of the amount of attention the “Pink Tide” has been receiving in Latin America, he would have found other solutions to Honduras’ existing domestic problems.

The strong internal divisions in the Honduran government that have emerged as a result of Zelaya’s actions show that the country as a whole is not drifting to the left, despite the president’s search for new alternative solutions to the present grim economic plight. Zelaya’s actions mark indubitable changes. At a recent meeting of the Honduran Council of Private Business (Cohep), executive secretary Bejamín Bográn asked, “Which path will Honduras take in the future?” For Hondurans, the uncertainty of the future of their nation is extremely unsettling.While the Honduran Congress has ultimate control over whether the nation will definitively join ALBA, the current unyielding collaboration between Venezuela and Honduras has not gone unnoticed, especially in the United States. This evident change of pace will undoubtedly influence future Washington initiatives regarding Honduras, as long as Zelaya is at the helm.