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Special Report II
Last Updated: 07/07/2009
Why Honduras matters to Chavez
Will Grant

As the situation unfolds at pace in Honduras, state television in Venezuela is not letting up on its coverage.

It interviewed President Manuel Zelaya live from his airplane as he tried to return to Honduras on Sunday and repeated hourly footage of the clashes between security forces and pro-Zelaya demonstrators outside the airport.

The around-the-clock focus points to how closely the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, and his supporters are following events in Tegucigalpa and how keen they are to see Mr Zelaya back in office.

The two leaders are allies, although Mr Chavez did not, as some have suggested, fund Mr Zelaya's election campaign.

In fact, the two had not met until after Mr Zelaya came to power in 2005 on a very different platform to the left-wing, populist policies of Mr Chavez.

“ I am sure President Chavez is playing a leading role in the decisions being taken by the Zelaya advisers at this sensitive time ”

Demetrio Boersner, Venezuelan international relations professor

Yet over the past four years, President Zelaya has moved closer to Mr Chavez and something of the flamboyant style of the Venezuelan leader may have rubbed off on the former landowner.

Now, as the interim government in Honduras tries to brave the diplomatic storm around it, the success or failure of the military-backed coup is being considered by some as a reflection on the wider appeal of Mr Chavez's political project.

In part, the overthrow was sparked by proposals to consider changing the constitution.

Like Mr Chavez before him, Mr Zelaya was talking about holding a referendum to see if there was popular support to change the constitution.

His opponents say it was the first step in trying to remove the current limit of a single term in office.

He says the consultation was non-binding and he was just trying to gauge public opinion.

Earlier this year, Hugo Chavez successfully campaigned to amend the Venezuelan constitution to end term limits on elected officials, so paving the way for him to stand again when his current term ends in 2012.

But the support that Mr Chavez was able to muster for change was simply lacking in Honduras.

Powerful figures in the Honduran Congress and judiciary opposed the move and whereas Mr Chavez continues to command popularity ratings of more than 50% even after a decade in office, support for Mr Zelaya is far more mixed.

Some Hondurans appear to oppose the coup on the grounds that they see it as illegal, and are worried that it could be harmful to Honduras - not because they particularly liked Mr Zelaya. Others are openly happy to see him gone.

For Mr Chavez, the Honduran leader has proved an important ally since he came office.

Alongside Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Manuel Zelaya provided an important Central American arm of two major Chavez initiatives - the group of nations known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba) - and PetroCaribe, both regional trade groups in which Venezuela provides oil at preferential rates.

Constant dialogue

Mr Zelaya was quick too to back Mr Chavez's rhetoric on the United States and by the end of the Bush administration had become a vocal critic of the US in what was traditionally viewed by Washington as its "backyard".

"Chavez embraces anyone who he thinks may be useful to his cause," says Demetrio Boersner, professor of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and a former diplomat.

"Ever since Zelaya showed signs of wanting to move in that political direction, Mr Chavez has been encouraging him at every turn.

"I also have no doubt that there is a constant dialogue between the two men and I am sure President Chavez is playing a leading role in the decisions being taken by the Zelaya advisers at this sensitive time."

Economically, Honduras is not a huge drain on Venezuela. It accounts for only a small fraction of the 100,000 barrels of oil a day which Venezuela exports to Alba member states, with the majority destined for Cuba.

Trade relations are minimal and Honduras is far more reliant on remittances from the United States than it is on Mr Chavez's petro-dollars.

Nevertheless, President Chavez has already indicated that oil to Honduras will be suspended in a bid to force out the interim government led by Roberto Micheletti.

Politically, however, the small Central American nation has become increasingly important to the Venezuelan leader.

"This is a coup against Venezuela!" President Chavez said in the hours after Mr Zelaya was forced on to a plane at gunpoint and flown to Costa Rica.

"It must not be permitted," he said, before adding that he would do whatever it takes to teach the coup leaders a lesson.

Mr Chavez has some experience of coups. He staged an unsuccessful one in 1992 in an effort to remove the then president Carlos Andres Perez from power.

And he was the subject of an attempted coup in 2002 which saw him briefly ousted from office before popular protests demanded his reinstatement by loyal members of the military.

International isolation

In the case of Mr Chavez, the entire episode was over within 48 hours. In Honduras, a week has already passed, and there is little sign of Mr Zelaya returning to power for the time being.

The strange alliance of US President Barack Obama, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and President Chavez is tightening the screws on Roberto Micheletti via diplomatic and economic means.

The coup leaders are refusing to budge, and insist Mr Zelaya's return to the presidency is non-negotiable.

Pressure is growing on President Obama to withhold US aid to Honduras and force Mr Micheletti and his supporters from the presidential palace.

President Chavez, for one, is hoping that their days are numbered.