Honduras election sets return to business as usual

AP News
Posted: Nov 22, 2009 5:43 PM

The coup last summer in this tiny, Central American country blew up into an international incident, with thousands of Hondurans taking to the streets while everyone from Barack Obama to Fidel Castro lined up behind ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Now, with Zelaya still holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, voters will choose a new president Nov. 29 from the political establishment that has dominated Honduras for decades.

No one is pushing the leftist agenda of the ousted leader, who said he was trying to lift a country where seven in 10 people are poor.

That's because Zelaya was disturbing a deeply conservative society that has long cherished peace and stability.

"It's a risk-averse culture," said Manuel Orozco, a Central America expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

The months of turmoil as Zelaya pressed for his reinstatement, the negotiation and U.S. shuttle diplomacy are about to be overtaken by business as usual _ Honduran style.

Even many of the poor who supported Zelaya as he aligned himself with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Latin America's new left say they will vote for conservative front-runner Porfirio Lobo, a 61-year-old wealthy businessman who is ahead by double digits in the polls.

"I will vote for the one who can fix this and give us work right now, because those suffering are the poor," said Reina Gomez, 53, a single mother who washes clothes for a living and who supported Zelaya in 2005.

Zelaya, a commanding figure whose standard uniform includes a white cowboy hat, was prohibited by the constitution from running for more than one term _ even before the military whisked him out of the country at gunpoint in the June 28 coup.

His opponents said he wanted to follow in Chavez's footsteps and revise the constitution to extend his time in office. Zelaya denies any such intention.

Honduras has always been run by a handful of families who control the news media, economy and every power sphere from the military to the Supreme Court.

As many of Central America's conservative governments battled leftist insurgencies from the 1960s to the 1980s, Honduras had no civil war and served as a key staging area for U.S.-backed Contras fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

But in one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest nations, gaunt workers in torn shoes and worn clothing trudge from their hillside shanty towns past Tegucigalpa's gleaming shopping malls to work in garment factories or American fast food restaurants.

Most survive on $250 a month.

"Here the politicians don't appreciate the people. They promise you all kinds of things but one comes in and then the next, and things are still the same," said construction worker Mario Espinal, 52, whose work diminished by half when international loans were cut off in the political crisis.

Like his counterparts from Nicaragua to Ecuador, Zelaya began preaching reform that favored the poor. He raised the minimum wage by 60 percent and pulled in Venezuelan aid that included free tractors and $300 million a year for agricultural investment.

"President Zelaya gave us hope that the people of Honduras would finally be able to emancipate themselves from a group of oligarchs that have kept this country subjugated through a constitution that was shaped to protect their interests," said Andres Pavon, a human rights activist.

While many Hondurans want reform, they were reluctant to trust Zelaya, a wealthy rancher elected from one of the two major conservative parties.

Orozco notes that other Latin American leftist leaders _ from Chavez to Bolivia's Evo Morales and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil _ grew up poor. They also spent years building their grass-roots movements, while Zelaya _ with support from a couple unions and student groups _ started shooting from the hip late in his term.

Zelaya "belongs to the elite, and he chose to dismiss his own peers and paid the price for that," Orozco said. "Those leaders have a hard time communicating their message. They think that because you like the poor, the poor are going to like you."

According to the CID-Gallup Poll, Zelaya's job-approval rating dropped steadily from 2007 to just 38 percent in October 2008, though it had rebounded to 53 percent by February and has held steady around 50 percent since. But beyond the first week of his ouster, he had a hard time amassing large numbers of supporters demanding his return.

Meanwhile, the left in Honduras is divided into small parties with few resources _ and without a charismatic leader to unite them into a movement strong enough to challenge the conservative stronghold.

Presidential front-runner Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005, is campaigning on a return to normalcy and blames Zelaya's Liberal Party for thrusting the country into international turmoil.

His main opponent is the Liberal Party's Elvin Santos, a construction magnate who distanced himself from Zelaya's leftist rhetoric at a closing campaign rally on Sunday.

"Democracy is built on work, effort, sacrifice," Santos said. "Some people say that can be disguised now by calling it 21st century socialism. ... I call that disguised populism."

The U.S-brokered pact with the interim government of Roberto Micheletti leaves the decision to reinstate Zelaya with the Honduran Congress, which has yet to vote. Zelaya has said he would not return to the presidency if Congress votes to restore him after the elections because that would legitimize the coup. The new president chosen in next week's elections will not take office until January.

But some say Zelaya might have done just enough to awaken a leftist movement in Honduras _ either led by him or someone else.

"I can see Lobo setting something up and smoothing over things with Zelaya because he wants to ensure Zelaya won't be a nuisance," said Heather Berkman of the Eurasia Group. "I don't think his political career is over. I can see him coming back in some shape or form."


Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson in Mexico City contributed to this report.