Zelaya and the Good Example

June 29, 2009

Nicholas Kozloff has a piece on the Honduran affair which sheds some light on the reasons why Washington might at least tolerate a military intervention to remove the president.

Perhaps it is related to the political conversion experienced by Manuel Zelaya between his assumption of power in 2005 and his ejection, in June 2009. As Kozloff relates:

Zelaya, who sports a thick black mustache, cowboy boots and large white Stetson hat, was elected in late 2005.  At first blush he hardly seemed the type of politician to rock the boat.  A landowner from a wealthy landowning family engaged in the lumber industry, Zelaya headed the Liberal Party, one of the two dominant political parties in Honduras.  The President supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement which eliminated trade barriers with the United States.

Despite these initial conservative leanings, Zelaya began to criticize powerful, vested interests in the country such as the media and owners of maquiladora sweatshops which produced goods for export in industrial free zones.  Gradually he started to adopt some socially progressive policies.  For example, Zelaya instituted a 60 per cent minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community.  The hike in the minimum wage, Zelaya declared, would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.”  “This is a government of great social transformations, committed to the poor,” he added.  Trade unions celebrated the decision, not surprising given that Honduras is the third poorest country in the hemisphere and 70 per cent of its people live in poverty.  When private business associations announced that they would challenge the government’s wage decree in Honduras’ Supreme Court, Zelaya’s Labor Minister called the critics “greedy exploiters.”

In another move that must have raised eyebrows in Washington, Zelaya declared during a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean anti-drug officials that drug consumption should be legalized to halt violence related to smuggling.  In recent years Honduras has been plagued by drug trafficking and so-called maras or street gangs which carry out gruesome beheadings, rapes and eye gouging.  “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand,” Zelaya said.  Rodolfo Zelaya, the head of a Honduran congressional commission on drug trafficking, rejected Zelaya’s comments. He told participants at the meeting that he was “confused and stunned by what the Honduran leader said.”

So Zelaya flipped from being a predictable neoliberal to being a populist, left-inclined maverick (to American eyes). But what may have happened is something much rarer. Governing during the second half of the Bush administration – and witnessing a truly destructive American epic unfold – Zelaya received a political education from Latin America’s growing legion of leftist leaders. He came to see things from a different perspective – from that of the poor workers, even that of criminals.

His policies are reminiscent of those recommended by liberation theologians like Archbishop Oscar Romero – middle of the road, humanist, appealing and deeply troubling for corporate strategists up north.

It’s not the extremist firebrands who most rile the empire – Chavez and Castro are more secure than figures like Zelaya. When Castro was a newly installed president – and less a communist than a populist nationalist – the U.S could not stop trying to kill him. Same with Chavez – more or less. Coming into office as a moderate social democrat, Chavez was radicalized by the coup d’etat and oil strike against his government organized from Washington.

The lesson is that moderate regimes moving towards the left are the most vulnerable. They are the “good examples” that carry the virus of independence across the continent and the world.

That is why when Zelaya said that “Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the center-left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word ‘center’ and keep the second one” (while signing onto ALBA) he made his ejection much more likely.

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