WASHINGTON, D.C. – At 5 a.m. on the morning of Latin America’s first coup d’état of the 21st century, Honduran Information Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina was awakened by an urgent phone call.
“The president’s secretary told me soldiers had surrounded the president’s house and that shots were being fired at his daughter’s house. We didn’t know what was happening,” Reina said, recalling the dramatic events of June 28.
After making some phone calls and scrambling for information, Reina finally fled to the Spanish Embassy in Tegucigalpa, which gave him refuge.
Reina’s boss, President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, wasn’t as lucky. Yanked from his bed by troops acting on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, the leftist president – still in his pajamas – was bundled into a military aircraft and flown against his will to neighboring Costa Rica.
All this happened on the day Zelaya’s government was supposed to hold a nonbinding referendum on constitutional reforms that critics – including many in his own party – say was part of a coordinated effort by leftists to consolidate power and turn Honduras into a populist dictatorship resembling Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.
Nothing could be further from the truth, retorts Reina, who is now acting as Zelaya’s Ambassador to the United States.
From Washington, D.C., Reina continues to stand by his beleaguered boss, who remains holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa after sneaking back into Honduras on Sept. 21 (TT, Sept. 25).
Reina warns that the “illegal” government of de facto President Roberto Micheletti won’t win the standoff.
In the three months following Zelaya’s ouster, the Honduran Embassy in Washington has become a microcosm of the drama that’s been playing out back home.
Within days of his exile, Zelaya appointed Reina to replace Ambassador Roberto Flores, who quickly declared his loyalty to Micheletti and resigned his post.
A 40-year-old Liberal Party loyalist who arrived here on July 9, Reina has been awaiting State Department confirmation as ambassador for nearly two months.
“For any career diplomat, Washington is one of the top posts in the world. Right now, I’m working for the principle of restoring democracy in Honduras,” said Reina, during an interview at the half-empty Honduran Embassy, located on the fourth floor of the Intelsat building offConnecticut Avenue
Since Zelaya’s ouster, six of the embassy’s 12 staffers have abandoned their jobs and gone back to Honduras. One employee who was in charge of the embassy’s website even sabotaged the site and disabled all the passwords, though Reina’s team has since been able to put the site back online (www.hondurasemb.org).
“The international community is very well aware how this military government works,” he said. “I think pressure will increase very decisively, and the coup leaders are also losing support within their own group because their position is weakening day by day. Hopefully, they won’t do anything foolish like trying to take Zelaya out of the Brazilian Embassy.”
In the interim, former Ambassador Flores has been shuttling between Washington and Tegucigalpa, lobbying on behalf of the Micheletti government.
“The government in Tegucigalpa has taken the view that the succession that took place was constitutional and that it followed procedure,” Flores said during a Sept. 22 address to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.Flores denied a request for a one-on-one interview.
The crisis in Honduras has left Reina and Flores, former close friends, in the unfamiliar position of being on opposing teams. Reina mused about the deterioration of his once-solid friendship with the man he replaced as ambassador.
“I don’t know if I can call us friends now,” he said with obvious regret. “Roberto Flores was a respected diplomat here. He was my boss in London when I was the deputy chief of mission at our embassy there and he was ambassador. Afterward, when he was minister of foreign affairs, I was his chief of cabinet.”
He added, “During President Zelaya’s inauguration, he was in charge of the ceremony and I was one of the coordinators. And my first job in the Zelaya government was viceminister of foreign affairs, so I was his boss.”
Reina says Flores called him July 3, five days after the coup. “He told me, ‘I understand this will end my functions with the Zelaya government, but this is the decision I have taken’,” Reina said. “He said he respects that I’m doing for my country what I think is right, and that he’ll do for his country what he thinks is right.”
What’s right is a matter of intense debate both in Honduras and throughout Latin America, where Zelaya’s forced removal and the subsequent soap-opera return have generated emotions ranging from outrage and indignation to pride and defiance.
So far though, none of the 192 member countries of the United Nations have recognized Micheletti as the bona fide president of Honduras after the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to condemn the coup.
Likewise, the Organization of American States has suspended Honduras, invoking for the first time ever Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, with OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza declaring that “a military coup is a rape of democracy.”
In early September, an increasingly impatient State Department formally terminated $30 million in non-humanitarian U.S. aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of specific members of the Micheletti government and its supporters. In addition, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested for the first time that the U.S. might not recognize the country’s elections this fall.
Zelaya’s base of support stems from the 70 percent of Hondurans who are considered impoverished. In fact, the country’s annual per-capita GDP is around $1,840, making it the fifth-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, Nicaragua, Guyana and Bolivia.
The wealthiest country in Latin America, by comparison, is oil-rich Venezuela, with a per-capita GDP of $11,388. Chávez is a model for Zelaya, who has made no secret of his admiration for the “Bolivarian revolution” and his contempt for “American imperialism” over the years.
Yet Reina says Chávez has nothing to do with the current crisis in Honduras. He insists the Venezuelan president is “just the scapegoat,” and that Micheletti, as president of Congress, heartily approved Tegucigalpa’s participation in both the Chávez-backed Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Petrocaribe oil program.
“The real reason behind the coup is that Zelaya upset the multinationals,” Reina declared.
He said, “We raised tax revenues by 40 percent just by making larger companies pay more taxes. In the past, those big companies were evading taxes. The president also raised the minimum wage by 60 percent, from 3,500 lempira (around $185) per month to 5,000 lempira (about $265) per month. And the private sector didn’t like that.”
Reina also criticized the “intransigence of the coupsters” for causing immeasurable damage to the Honduran economy. “Foreign investment dropped by 18 percent in the three months since the coup, while international reserves have fallen from $2.5 billion to $2.1 billion. I don’t see the coup leaders really worrying about the poor people. The elite who supported the coup are the richest people in Honduras, and they don’t feel the pressure. But sooner or later, they’ll start feeling it when it affects their business.”
With tensions still boiling three months after Zelaya’s ouster, Reina warned that nothing will change without the president’s official restoration to power.
“The candidates have to understand that the international community will not recognize any of the winners of these elections,” he said. “Maybe a solution will be reached, but if we go to elections under current circumstances and the people are divided, it will be worse, much worse.”
See this issue of The Tico Times for more Honduras coverage