When Honduran president Manuel Zelaya–who was rousted out of his bed on Sunday morning by a detachment of armed soldiers and forced into exile still in his pajamas–took office in early 2006, unionists, peasant activists and reformers expected little of the center-right politician, a rancher and member of the establishment Liberal Party. Neither did the handful of elite Honduran families who, bankrolled by foreign finance, control their country’s media, banking, agricultural, manufacturing and narcotics industries. “You are only temporary, while we are permanent,” they told him soon after his inauguration, according one report, reminding Zelaya that he served at their pleasure.
But the realities of governing in a country as poor as Honduras–more than 60 percent of its population live in poverty, more than 50 percent in extreme poverty–tends to reinforce a left-wing slant. Perhaps it was the imperious and imperial behavior of George W. Bush’s ambassador to Honduras, described by Zelaya as “barbarous.” Or maybe it was the fact that the Central American Free Trade Agreement, rather than delivering promised development, worsened his country’s trade deficit with the United States while driving low wages even lower, as Honduras competed with its equally impoverished neighbors for investment. Or perhaps it was the US Food and Drug Administration’s unilateral ban of Honduran cantaloupes because they were supposedly tainted with salmonella, though the FDA offered no proof of the charge, a move Zelaya called “unjust.”
Whatever the reason, Zelaya shifted course, and over the past two years he has adopted a progressive agenda. As a solution to the disastrous “war on drugs,” which has turned Central America into a well-traversed trans-shipment corridor for narcotraficantes–profitable for some, deadly for many–he has proposed the legalization of some narcotics. Earlier this year at the Summit of the Americas, he took the lead in pushing Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. And he has steered his country into both the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas and Petrocaribe, two regional economic alliances backed by Venezuela meant to wean Latin America off its extreme dependence on the US market.
This left turn is less ideological than pragmatic. Honduras is so broke it “can’t even build a road without getting a loan from the World Bank,” Zelaya once complained. But that money comes in “dribbles, held up years by paperwork” and often accompanied by onerous terms. In contrast, he said, Petrocaribe financing for infrastructure investment came all at once, at extremely low interest, with no conditions, which helped free up other scarce funds for social services. Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela also provides Honduras with 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day, also on very generous terms.