MANAGUA – Last weekend’s military overthrow of Honduras’ elected President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya has caused particular alarm in neighboring Nicaragua, where polarization over President Daniel Ortega’s similar efforts to consolidate control and perpetuate himself in power has led to political instability and serious allegations of ungovernability.
Though the political realities of Honduras and Nicaragua are distinct, both countries’ presidents are trying to change their respective political systems to remain in power – part of a common revolutionary agenda promoted by the leftist countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Fellow ALBA countries Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have already implemented such reforms, while Zelaya and Ortega are seeking support for new constitutions in their countries.
In Honduras, Zelaya’s contentious efforts to push the reform agenda has divided his traditionally conservative country. The Supreme Court ruled his efforts are illegal and the proposal was opposed by all other branches of government, business chambers, church leaders and other interest groups. It remains unclear what type of popular support there was for the reforms, since the intended consultation was frustrated by Sunday’s coup.
The military, too, refused to support the president’s efforts, prompting Zelaya to fire his top general for insubordination. That helped set the stage for his ouster June 28 (see separate story, TT P.1).
“The worst and most perverse aspect of what Zelaya is doing is that he put the military on the spot, which is like opening the lamp where the genie has been resting for years. This is playing with fire,” said Nicaraguan lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, president of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
In Nicaragua, where Ortega has consolidated authority over other branches of government, there isn’t the same threat of an internal coup, analysts say. There is very little separation of powers here and the military and police come from Sandinista roots, assuring a stronger base of loyalty to Ortega.
“In Nicaragua, the army and police come from the revolution and would never act against the state of law, against democracy or against the people,” Ortega told Venezuelan TV network Telesur, in the wake of the coup in Honduras.
But in broader terms, Nicaragua’s democratic institutions are extremely fragile and the political situation here is demonstrably unstable. In fact, according to the World Bank’s most recent worldwide governance indicators, Nicaragua ranks even lower than Honduras in the area of “political stability and absence of violence.”
Ortega is also considered a political wildcard who, similar to Zelaya, has shown he has few qualms about bending the law and pushing the country to the fringes of democracy to advance his political objectives.
“Ortega has not yet tried to put the head of the army in a delicate political situation such as Zelaya did, but you can’t rule out the possibility that he will in the future. He is capable of doing that and much more,” said retired Nicaraguan Gen. Hugo Torres, who was part of the effort to transform the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) into a professional Nicaraguan Army in the 1990s.
Torres said Ortega has already put the military into several uncomfortable “gray areas” in past years, such as using a Nicaraguan Air Force plane to bring FARC exiles to Managua last year, violating Colombian airspace in the process. And by sending his military brass to officially greet a visiting Russian warship that anchored here illegally last December.
Torres said the Nicaraguan Army has become a “very professional institution” over the years, but he’s concerned that Ortega will try to further “subordinate” the military under his personal control.
“This is a pending issue for Ortega,” Torres said, warning that such efforts could have very dangerous repercussions.
Region at Risk
At an emergency summit in Managua June 29, several Latin American leaders expressed serious concern about what a consolidated coup in Honduras would mean to regional stability.
“This would cause a domino effect in the whole region,” said Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, whose own government almost fell amid civil unrest last May.
Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández warned that if the coup is successful it could become “contagious” and spread to other countries facing similar political polarization. He said the countries of the hemisphere need to stop the coup in its tracks to “prevent what could happen in another one of our countries.”
Other leaders are beating their chests. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez said that if the Honduran coup leaders touch his ambassador again, it would be “cause for war.”
Chávez’s warning of war prompted Cuban President Raúl Castro to add, “You can speak for us, too.”
The Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan ambassadors to Honduras were caught in the original military dragnet during the coup.
They were reportedly detained and allegedly beaten by soldiers, according to various accounts after their release.
Though Chávez and the other ALBA countries withdrew their ambassadors this week, the Venezuelan leader again warned of war June 30, saying the coup leaders are “responsible for whatever happens.”
Chávez said he is willing to “do everything to overthrow this government of gorillas.”
“We have to support the rebellion in Honduras,” the Venezuelan leader stressed. The countries of ALBA signed a declaration Monday putting themselves on “permanent alert” and encouraging Hondurans to exercise their constitutional “right to insurrection” to overthrow the coup.
Honduras’ deposed Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas, who arrived in Nicaragua June 29 from Mexico, called for Hondurans to maintain the pressure in the streets of Tegucigalpa. Rodas, who was detained and exiled by the military June 28, said “we can’t demobilize” against the coup effort.
In Nicaragua, too, the Sandinista Front has called for similar mobilizations, calling on its loyalists to take to the streets of Managua to show their support for Zelaya and their repudiation of the coup. Sandinista union leader Gustavo Porras said the situation in Honduras is a “lesson” to Nicaragua.
But he stressed the Sandinistas’ “permanent mobilization” in the streets will ensure there could never be a coup here.
ALBA on the Offensive The coup in Honduras is being viewed as a major challenge not only to Nicaragua, but to ALBA in general.
“This is the first real setback for the ALBA alliance in Latin America,” said Nicaraguan opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre. “And this is the first setback for Hugo Chávez’s offensive, which has been going full blast for the past 10 years.”
Chávez said the ouster of Zelaya is “like a coup against all of us – and we won’t allow it.” The countries of ALBA, he said, are “on the offensive.”
Going on the offensive in the name of democracy also takes ALBA off the defensive after years of facing international criticism for weakening democratic institutions in the region.
Perhaps no one benefits more from this shift than Nicaragua’s Ortega, whose government is accused of authoring “the most documented electoral fraud in Latin America’s history” in last November’s municipal elections.
Ortega has been accused of undermining Nicaragua’s constitution and straying from democratic principles – a situation that has recently caused the loss of some $160 million in foreign aid (see separate story, pg. N2).
Others have expressed concern that the situation in Honduras could be used by Ortega as an excuse to crack-down even harder on opposition movements, claiming they are coups in the making.
But this week Ortega, in his role as master of ceremonies in Managua, became the region’s leading champion of democracy. First Lady Rosario Murillo even gushed that Managua had become the “capital of democracy.”
Some took offense at that self-proclaimed honorific. Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, who claims he was robbed of the mayor’s seat of Managua by the Sandinistacontrolled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) in last year’s contentious municipal elections, took advantage of the international attention given to the coup in Honduras to call on the Organization of American States (OAS) to take note of the situation in Nicaragua, too.
“The OAS cannot become an institution that only defends individuals,” Montealegre said in a release. “We demand the OAS come to Nicaragua and resolve the issue of the massive election theft … and see how (the government of Nicaragua) is also disrupting the rule of law.”
Regional leaders such as Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias said that the meltdown in Honduras shows just how volatile the entire isthmus is – a situation that is again leading other parts of the world to wonder about Central America’s future.
“In Washington, Guatemala has already become an issue of great concern, and the Honduras crisis only contributes to the perception that Central America is increasingly precarious,” said Latin American analyst Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C. “It says a lot about change in Washington when the new president of El Salvador of the FMLN government is seen as the great hope for political stability and democracy.”