Manuel Zelaya (1952-) is a Honduran businessman and politician. He was elected President in 2005 by a narrow margin and began his term in 2006. A leftist, he has cultivated close ties with Latin American leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro
and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez
. In late June of 2009 he was ousted by a combination of the Supreme Court, Congress and the military: it remains to be seen if he will reclaim his position or not.
Early Life and Background:
José Manuel Zelaya Rosales was born into an upper middle class family in the town of Juticalpa in the province of Olancho. He received a good education, but dropped out of college (where he was studying engineering) to concentrate on the family’s farms and cattle ranches. He was also involved in the timber industry for a time. He entered politics early and was elected to Honduras Congress for the first time in 1985.
Zelaya was re-elected to Congress twice, serving from 1985 to 1998. He was a rising star in the Liberal Party and held positions of importance during the administration of Carlos Roberto Flores, who was President from 1998 to 2002. Zelaya served as Minister of Investment and became known for supporting programs that empowered local indigenous groups.
Run for the Presidency:
In 2005, Zelaya launched a bid for president, running in large part on a law-and-order platform. He pledged to tackle Honduras’ crime epidemic with more police and re-education programs for violent international gangs such as the infamous Mara Salvatrucha. Honduras is a major part of the illegal shipping network bringing drugs from South to North America. Zelaya’s opponent in the 2005 election was Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who advocated stiffer penalties for drug gangs as opposed to Zelaya’s re-education programs. Zelaya won the election by an extremely narrow margin.
Zelaya’s presidency has been a rough one. In spite of his promises and programs, violence and drug trafficking in Honduras continued to worsen under Zelaya’s administration. The homicide rate in Honduras is currently among the worst in Latin America. Several of his closest advisors and cabinet members have been forced to resign due to corruption scandals, and his approval ratings have been consistently low.
Zelaya has moved away from Honduras’ traditional friendship with the United States and instead cultivated ties to leftist leaders such as Fidel and Raul
Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. This move to the left has had serious political consequences for Zelaya, as it has strengthened the opposition among conservatives at home. In 2008, he famously called on the United States to legalize drugs, an act he believes would diminish drug-related violence in Honduras.
Following the lead of other leftist leaders in Ecuador, Bolivia and other nations, Zelaya sought in 2009 to change the constitution to favor him and his policies. The current Honduras constitution does not allow for presidents to be re-elected. The date of June 28, 2009 was set as the day that voters would essentially decide whether or not to have a yes/no vote on electing a constitutional assembly in the November 2009 elections. Zelaya’s political foes seized on this as an attempt to circumvent the clearly-worded constitution and the Supreme Court declared the vote unconstitutional.
June 28 Coup:
On the morning of June 28, the date set for the referendum, Honduran security forces arrested Zelaya and sent him on an airplane to Costa Rica. The Congress declared that it was in possession of a letter of resignation from Zelaya and voted to remove him and elevate Roberto Micheletti, President of Congress, to President of Honduras in accordance with Honduran law. In Costa Rica, Zelaya loudly protested that he had written no such letter and that he was the victim of a coup led by the military and Congress. The vote did not take place.
Return to Honduras:
In exile, Zelaya had the support of leftist leaders such as Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. In mid-September of 2009, Zelaya covertly returned to Honduras, making his way to Tegucigalpa via back roads. When he arrived, he immediately sought asylum in the embassy of Brazil while exhorting the people of Honduras to take to the streets and restore him to power. They did, although the protests were quickly controlled by police. The interim government has vowed to arrest him if he leaves the embassy.
What Happens Now?:
The international community has condemned Zelaya's removal, including strongly worded statements from US president Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sanctions have been imposed on Honduras to encourage them to reinstate Zelaya.
A round of talks led by Nobel-Prize winning President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias went nowhere, as the two sides will not agree on one central issue: Zelaya's reinstatement. Zelaya will settle for nothing less, and the interim government will not have him back in power, even if that power is limited.
Honduras has set elections for a new president in November of 2009. If the elections take place and are clean, the international community will have a hard time maintaining sanctions against one of the poorest nations in the world. The interim government seems content to "run out the clock" until the elections. Zelaya understands this, and it probably explains his risky return to Tegucigalpa.
Latin American politics is a funny thing, and politicians once thought gone and forgotten have made triumphant returns to power. Juan Peron did in Argentina, returning to the presidency after some twenty years in exile. This international incident has raised Zelaya's profile so high that another run at the presidency in the future is certainly plausible.
Update: In Late October 2009, a compromise was finally worked out which would allow the Honduran Congress to vote on a limited reinstatement of Zelaya to serve out the rest of his term. Both sides gained and lost something with the agreement, assuming Congress reinstates him. Zelaya returns to office, although his power will be severely limited and his remaining time in office short. The interim government allows him to return, but with amnesty for the coup and the fact that he'll be gone in a couple of months.