TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Manuel Zelaya's chances of getting restored to the Honduran presidency become more distant with each passing week. Across Latin America, his allies and foes alike see a precedent being set.
It's a glimmer of hope for the region's conservative elite, which has watched with dismay over the past decade as a wave of leftist presidents has risen to power, promising to topple the establishment and give greater power to the poor.
When the once-moderate Zelaya started down that path, Honduras' military, Congress and Supreme Court teamed up to oust him, and despite protests from across the hemisphere the coup-installed government remains in place. Could this be the model Latin America's conservatives were desperately seeking?
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup himself, said Cuba's Fidel Castro told him the situation in Honduras will "open the door to the wave of coups coming in Latin America."
"Fidel says something that is very true," he said.
Added Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a close ally of Chavez and Zelaya: "We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next."
Across the region, conservatives who long ruled Latin America — and still own much of it — are showing signs of unrest, with armed uprisings in Bolivia and marches in Guatemala where tens of thousands of protesters have demanded the president resign.
But the most extreme case came in Honduras, a country with three decades of political stability and seven consecutive democratically elected presidents.
"This coup really surprised us," said Jorge Acevedo, deputy director of a Honduran human rights group. "We thought the issue of civilian rule was something we had resolved a long time ago."
Soldiers arrested Zelaya on June 28 and flew him into exile, and within hours Congress swore in the next-in-line to the presidency, Roberto Micheletti. In the six weeks since, demonstrations by Zelaya supporters and diplomatic efforts by countries ranging from the United States to Venezuela have been unsuccessful in orchestrating Zelaya's return.
Argentina's Cristina Fernandez, whose popularity has plummeted, said allowing Honduras' interim government to remain in power until the presidential election on Nov. 29 would undermine democracy across the region.
"It would be enough for someone to stage a civilian coup, backed by the armed forces, or simply a civilian one and later justify it by convoking elections," Fernandez told South American leaders. "And then democratic guarantees would truly be fiction."
Honduras responded Tuesday by giving Argentina's diplomatic mission 72 hours to leave the country.
‘Zelaya gave enough reasons’ for ouster
Those who have stirred turmoil in left-led countries insist they are the ones defending democracy.
Many of the so-called "revolutionary" governments that have been voted into power from Nicaragua to Bolivia have not only tried to redistribute wealth but also remove limits on their time in power. Many have reduced the powers of opponents in ways that have made traditional elites feel their private holdings, investments and democratic freedoms are under attack.
"I think Zelaya gave enough reasons to be removed from government — reasons that exist in abundance in Venezuela," said Venezuelan opposition leader Jose Luis Farias. "Chavez has violated the constitution a lot more than Zelaya did."
In Bolivia, opposition Gov. Ruben Costas called Zelaya's ouster a logical reaction to "a process that follows the same book as Chavez, which only seeks constitutional changes to perpetuate strongmen."
"There is a limit in countries where we are suffering abuses," he told radio Erbol.
Of course, the Honduras precedent goes only so far.
No other leader in the region faces the utter political isolation that drove Zelaya from power so swiftly and efficiently: The military, the Supreme Court and even Zelaya's own political party turned against him when he deepened his allegiance with Chavez and pursued constitutional changes in defiance of court rulings.
Leftists making a move
Elsewhere in the region, many of the leaders have already solidified their hold on power, in part through referendums and new constitutions overwhelmingly approved by voters. In Venezuela, other branches of government including congress and the judiciary are stacked with Chavez allies, leaving his opponents with few options for getting back into power.
"Removing Chavez through legal means — that is, through institutions — is very difficult because he has absolute control over all the institutions of the country," Farias said.
Leftist leaders are taking no chances.
Ecuador has announced plans to create citizens committees to defend against Honduras-style coups. Correa has not provided details of how the groups will work, but critics fear they could become something akin to Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, used to monitor "counter-revolutionary" activities.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who calls two weeks of deadly protests in the eastern lowlands last year a "civilian coup," recently announced that three men killed by police had been planning to assassinate him in a plot backed by opposition leaders.
Guatemala's Alvaro Colom said he was being targeted by elites angry about his attempts to eliminate corporate tax loopholes when thousands took to the streets in May. They were demanding his resignation after a videotape by a prominent lawyer foretold his own murder, claiming Colom was to blame.
And for any Latin American leader who feels confident of their hold on power, Honduras offers a sobering lesson in how quickly a president can lose control.
Luis Vicente Leon, an analyst with Venezuela's Datanalisis polling firm, said all of Latin America's leftist leaders "have a lot of enemies."
"No one," he said, "is immune."
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