Ousted Honduran president Zelaya: wily leftist or buffoon?

Miami HeraldJuly 2, 2009 

An eccentric populist to some, a phony, wannabe president-for-life to others, Honduras' exiled President Manuel Zelaya carries a curious pedigree.

He grew up in a wealthy landowning family, dropped out of college but went on to witness his nation's grinding poverty firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch and then win office by one of the slimmest margins in Honduran history.

By the time of his ouster in his pajamas Sunday, the imposing six-foot, two-inch mustachioed 56-year-old had made a pilgrimage to Havana to pose for a photo with Fidel Castro, sung along while a Mexican band crooned a ballad about drug-trafficking -- and alienated his nation's media, military and supreme court.

''He's always had a reputation -- as a child and as an adult -- of being wild, reckless and untamable,'' said former U.S. Ambassador Cresencio Arcos, who served in Honduras in the 1980s and 90s. ''But the sense I had is there was no ideology there'' before his rise to power.

Zelaya achieved the presidency by campaigning on a reform agenda in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat, and was inaugurated in January 2006 under a constitutional system that limits the president to one term.

Fellow ranch owner George W. Bush welcomed him to the Oval Office soon after with smiles, lunch and a declaration of, "We're sure glad you're here.''

But that was before he would alarm the White House by forging friendships with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, a move that brought cheap oil to his impoverished nation of 7.5 million even as antagonists accused him of mishandling the economy.

Zelaya, known by the nickname Mel, was born 80 miles outside the capital to a father who claimed a 400-year landowning and cattle-ranching tradition but was also blamed for a 1970s massacre of some priests and peasants, which the family denies.

He never left his country to study abroad, a status symbol in class-conscious Central America, and he never managed to get a degree from the Honduran engineering college where he studied for a time.

When he was elected, he came off as a wealthy, upstart outsider, especially in some circles who had overlooked the years he worked for President Carlos Flores as Minister of Investment, an era that emphasized aid to local communities.

In his swift four-year rise and fall from president to outcast, he has been a Mass-going Catholic who's remained married to the same woman for 33 years. In October 2006, he attended the Miami-area opening of a headquarters for the King Jesus International Ministry -- part of a Spanish-speaking evangelical movement expanding its influence in Central America.

In Miami, John Laffitte, a pastor at El Rey Jesús Ministerio Internacional, said the ministry was declining to say whether Zelaya had been in contact with the mega-church, specifically the movement's Honduran founder, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado.

Zelaya never served in the Honduran military, and recent events suggest he never successfully courted the nation's powerful institution. Senior officers chose to boot him from the country rather than follow what Honduras' supreme court and congress cast as an illegal order: to hold a non-binding referendum on changing the constitution, which opponents cast as a plot to lift the single-term limit on the presidency. Zelaya was to cede office in January.

By the time of his ouster, he had already antagonized the nation's media by borrowing a page from Chávez's playbook.

Confronted with blistering coverage of his government's handling of crime in May 2007, Zelaya ordered TV stations to relinquish two hours of government programming for a 10-day propaganda campaign defending the government record. The confiscation of airtime was technically legal but stirred an outcry that the man whom the United Nations and Organization of American States now defend as democratically elected was seeking to weaken a pillar of democracy.

His presidency has also been dogged by allegations of corrupt cronyism.

In April, a now defunct Miami-based communications firm, Latin Node, agreed to pay $2 million in fines after pleading guilty to bribing officials in Honduras and Yemen in exchange for favorable interconnection rates. Bush's original pointman for Latin American policy, Otto Reich, who went on to become an adviser to some Latin American telecommunications firms, told El Nuevo Herald at the time that Zelaya encouraged such practices.

Then in October 2008, the Honduran leader argued that Latin America should decriminalize drug abuse and legalize prescriptions for addicts as a means of regulating narco-trafficking rather than declare war on it. The idea floated throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil, but sounded eccentric enough to let critics question his stability.

Search the Internet and you will find a YouTube posting of an April 30 report straight from the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, when the Grammy-winning Mexican band Los Tigres Del Norte stopped by ahead of a concert.

There, Zelaya sat in his cowboy hat and beamed while the balladeers sang an homage to narco-trafficking, notably an outlaw smuggling 100 kilos of cocaine bound for Chicago.

''You will never see my name or picture in the newspapers because the journalists love me,'' they croon as Zelaya claps with approval. "And if they don't, they will lose my friendship.''

Now in exile, he is racking up condemnations of his ouster from President Barack Obama and other world leaders for whom a 21st-century coup of a democratically elected leader is anathema.

And his hopes are pinned on an OAS mission to reinstall him for his last six months in office -- even amid a whispering campaign by opponents who question his sanity.

''I have not met him. But I don't think he's crazy,'' said Roger Noriega, who ran Bush's Latin American policy from 2003 to 2005. "My impression from my friends is that he thinks he can run the country like his private finca and treats people accordingly. I think Chávez has radicalized him and pushed him into a fight he can't win on his own.''

Arcos added that Zelaya's exile left the U.S. no choice but to insist upon the return of a democratically elected leader who sought to bend his constitution in ways critics consider undemocratic:

''If he's crazy, he's still brilliant politically,'' said Arcos. "How is it that a guy who is a lame-duck president with five months to go dominates Honduras? The political discussion, the political dialogue is all around him. He dictates the terms. And he continues to do that even now.''

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