RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been the clear winner so far in Honduras' political crisis, leading the hemispheric condemnation of the military ouster June 28 of President Manuel Zelaya while orchestrating Zelaya's most audacious attempt to regain power, analysts said.
Chavez, an avowed socialist and critic of the United States, has emerged in the unlikely role as the leading champion of democracy for Honduras, though he catapulted to fame as an army colonel by trying to overthrow Venezuela's democratically elected government in 1992. Chavez was first elected president in 1999, but he's been stripping Venezuelan elected opponents of their power recently.
"Chavez has been showing a great level of influence" in the Honduras crisis, former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said by telephone from La Paz. "He has been setting the tone for the international community; the OAS (Organization of American States) has been running at his rhythm and pace; and he has been milking this for all it's worth. It's been an incredible gift given to Chavez by the (Honduran) military."
Chavez choreographed the cinematic tour de force Sunday when Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras by flying to Tegucigalpa without permission from Honduras' de facto government while thousands of Zelaya's followers cheered him on and clashed with security forces.
Zelaya was traveling on a Venezuelan plane flown by Venezuelan pilots, and the drama was covered live throughout Latin America by Chavez's fledgling Telesur cable network, which had the only TV cameras aboard the plane. The runway blocked, the plane circled the Honduran capital and then landed in neighboring El Salvador.
"You have to admit that it's been quite a show," Quiroga added.
On Tuesday, for the first time in the crisis, Chavez became a bystander as the Obama administration played its most direct role so far in the standoff.
After meeting Zelaya in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias — who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to broker an end to Central America's wars of the 1980s — would attempt to find a solution that's acceptable to both sides in Honduras.
The crisis came at a time when Chavez could use the distraction. The fall in the price of oil has limited his ability to reward friends at home and abroad. His influence also has been declining in Latin America as he and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina and Honduras have been suffering from political and economic troubles.
In contrast, the moderate leftist presidents of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have remained popular even though the global economic crisis has battered their countries.
Recent events in Honduras would have been unimaginable when Zelaya was elected president nearly four years ago as a conservative, not surprising for a member of a wealthy ranching family.
Ever the provocateur, Chavez somehow pulled Zelaya into his orbit a couple of years ago. Honduras began receiving cut-rate fuel from oil-rich Venezuela and joined the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas."
The Honduran crisis began when Zelaya took a page out of Chavez's playbook by attempting to hold a public vote that would open the way for him to change the constitution and run for re-election later this year. The Honduran Supreme Court and the military said the vote was illegal, and troops hustled Zelaya out of the country.
Chavez denounced the coup in class terms.
"If the oligarchs of this continent break the rules of the game, as they have in the past few days," Chavez said, "the people have the right to resist and fight back, and us with them. This is a warning for the oligarchs of this continent."
Chavez had reason to feel threatened, according to Alvaro Vargas-Llosa, a Peruvian analyst based in Washington at the Center on Global Prosperity, a research center that promotes free markets.
"We can judge from the way that he's reacted — he's been very nervous — that if the coup against Zelaya prevails, this could create a perception in Central America and beyond that Chavez is now facing a powerful counter-reaction, and that people are now willing to stand up to him," Vargas-Llosa said. "This could also embolden foes in Venezuela, including the military, to try to stop Chavez the next time he violates the law there."
Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University from Bolivia, said Chavez had orchestrated a split in the OAS.
"Chavez and his group want to bring back Zelaya at any cost," Gamarra said by telephone from Miami. "The other group — led by the United States and Brazil — favors a more cautious approach."
The Obama administration's opposition to the coup seems to have flummoxed Chavez. During the Bush administration, Chavez typically rallied Latin American presidents when the U.S. took a position at odds with their governments.
"Obama has undercut Chavez's ability to be a knight in shining armor and use the U.S. as a foil," Robert Gelbard, a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America, said by telephone from Washington.
An illustration of that came Sunday, when Chavez told Telesur that he blamed "the Yankee empire" — but not Obama — for the overthrow.
"I am not saying that they have the support of Obama because I believe he (Obama) is more like a prisoner of the empire," Chavez said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow South American news at McClatchy's Inside South America
McClatchy Newspapers 2009