The President in His Thicket
Why did President Mel Zelaya celebrate the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution with Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez?
One explanation lies in his solitude and his loss of control of the government
over which he supposedly presides. Another is the woman beside him on the podium. But the main explanation is his ideological “thicket.”
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Only two of Central America’s Presidents accepted the invitation to go to Managua to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, an historical event not only for Nicaragua but for the whole region. One was Panama’s Martín Torrijos, who as a young man fought against Somoza on the Sandinistas’ southern front. The other, rather surprisingly, was Honduras’ Mel Zelaya.
During the multitudinous event, a euphoric Zelaya contrasted sharply with a somber and even uncomfortable-looking Torrijos. At the Honduran President’s side, the president of his Liberal Party, Patricia Rodas, seemed to reach a point of ecstasy as she joined in with Chávez and Rosario Murillo in the traditional chant of “the people united will never be defeated.”
Decided promoter of citizens’ power?MC Rosario Murillo announced Zelaya as “another decided promoter of citizens’ power and a great friend of the unity of our peoples, a great defender of fraternity” representing “the brother people of Honduras.”
Zelaya kept his words to the fervent Sandinista crowd brief. The heart of his speech was as follows: “I am here to vehemently salute Central American unity, the liberating ideas of Morazán and the ideals of Simón Bolívar’s Pan-Americanism. I consider it important for Central America to maintain the principles of unity as the only way to confront those who want to sow hatred, destruction and division among our peoples, those want to keep us hungry, ignorant and isolated. I congratulate President Daniel Ortega Saavedra because he has told us to erase the borders, to open spaces for participation.”
Chávez and Cardinal Zelaya’s visit to Managua was strongly criticized by both Honduras’ extreme Right and the US Embassy. It also coincided with declarations by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga to a Salvadoran newspaper in which he called Chávez a “dictator” who “thinks he’s God” and is leading Venezuela into a “dictatorship.” Chávez was quick to reply, calling him a “clown” and a “parrot of imperialism dressed up as a cardinal.”
Rodriguez cross swords
No Hondurans—be they officials, businesspeople, ecclesiasts, believers or atheists—dare publicly criticize Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga for the damage it would do to their reputation, tantamount to digging their own grave. The Honduran power sectors thus nearly hit the roof over Chávez’s insult and the country’s Congress debated it for almost three hours. Each representative who took the floor added a new quality to the unquestionable leadership of a cardinal who is the pride of Honduras, Central America and the whole Catholic world.
The Venezuelan President’s offense toward such a sublime figure could not go without an official response, so Congress formally requested that President Zelaya demand an apology from Chávez. Zelaya couldn’t afford to offend either the legislators or Chávez, much less a cardinal who is an essential reference point for Honduran politicians and public officials. The President likes to boast that he was one of the cardinal’s students in the San Miguel Salesian high school in Tegucigalpa, inheriting from him the Christian and ethical values that now guarantee his administration. Like a good horse tamer, he proved able to keep all three in their traces.
Chávez apologizes, Zelaya promised the representatives, the nation and the cardinal that he would personally talk to the Venezuelan President within 48 hours: “I’ll tell him the cardinal is a man of God and that all Hondurans agree that he’s highly symbolic for all nations of the world. But I also don’t believe Chávez is a dictator.”
chalking up a success for Zelaya
His mediation proved effective. Chávez said he was willing to apologize. “That’s not difficult for me,” he said, “but I hope he has the wisdom to recognize that he was wrong to say there’s a dictatorship here without knowing what he was talking about. They say I showed a lack of respect to the cardinal, when he disrespected me first.”
In a hurried parenthesis to the many more important things he was dealing with at the time, Chávez publicly apologized, albeit rather half-heartedly: “If the cardinal has felt offended and I have to apologize, then I apologize. But his appraisal of Venezuela and my government reflect his lack of information and I call on him to come to Venezuela, visit the towns and ask questions to find out what people really think.” So Chávez corrected himself, the cardinal accepted his apologies and nobody could complain about Zelaya.
Following a brutal repression orderLeftwing politician Matías Funes uses a formidable metaphor to describe President Zelaya, who he claims has no ideology; “what he has is in head is an ideological thicket.” In other words, a tangle of vegetation in which you don’t know where one branch starts and another one ends, or where either is heading.
Is Zelaya really a promoter of “citizens’ power,” as Murillo presented him to the Nicaraguan people? It shouldn’t be forgotten that his trip to Managua was right after the brutal repression of Honduran citizens exercising their right to protest. Just two days earlier, Zelaya ordered the suppression of a protest organized by communities in western Honduras and by the Diocesan Church of Santa Rosa and its bishop, Monsignor Luis Alfonso Santos. What followed was a violent operation against a peaceful demonstration by a contingent of police officers and soldiers armed with weapons out of all proportion to the situation, including water cannons, tear gas, Billy clubs and even machine guns. The demonstrators were demanding the abolition of the Mining Law, which gives tremendous leeway to the mining companies, as well as the passage of new legislation that respects national sovereignty and protects the environment and the life of peasant communities. The mining issue is currently a centerpiece of the struggles of Hondurans exercising their power and demanding their rights.
The President of the Republic was directly responsible for the order to repress the protest. By land and air the military laid into the inhabitants, journalists from community and Catholic radio stations, civilians and members of religious orders. Over 60 people were arrested, including 3 priests, and some 20 people were injured. The government followed this up by organizing a news blockade to prevent the rest of the country from hearing the details of what happened. Marco Aurelio Lorenzo, the parish priest of Macuelizo in Santa Bárbara, was mercilessly beaten even though video footage showed him on his knees, with his hands raised to the sky. The presidential order was categorical: there was to be no suggestion that the government would allow highways to be blocked. Leaving behind a trail of injured people and hundreds of raging hearts, Zelaya took off for Managua, to be lauded as a promoter of citizens’ rights by the woman supposedly championing them in Nicaragua.
A 1975 massacre is partThe President’s personal history has other links with the repression of priests. He comes from a family that is Catholic through and through, but one of its haciendas witnessed the massacre of 10 peasant farmers, 2 women and 2 priests in June 1975. Mel Zelaya was around 20 years old when those people were murdered then dynamited in one of the hacienda’s wells.
of his personal history
His father, Manuel Zelaya, was a leader of the Olancho ranchers’ association at the time and all the investigations suggested that old man Zelaya was present at the meeting where it was decided to murder priest Ivan Betancourt and the peasant leaders whose march against hunger was threatening the “social peace” and “Western values.” Some swear that Zelaya Sr’s favorite son carried some of the weapons used against the victims.
While President Zelaya and the Liberal Party president were shouting long live all revolutions past, present and future alongside Ortega and Chávez, the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, Monsignor Luis Alfonso Santos, was denouncing the government’s repressive actions to the international community and demanding at the very least the dismissal of the security minister. He also announced that they would continue to fight for abolition of the Mining Law and would also demand the abolition of the Drinking Water Framework Law, aimed at privatizing drinking water services.
Born to be a hacienda caudilloIn President Zelaya’s ideological thicket of tangled confusion anything goes. Days before setting off for Managua and ordering the repression, Zelaya was in Washington anxiously seeking to talk with President Bush. He had to make do with a rushed meeting with Condoleezza Rice and a handful of businesspeople he was trying to convince to invest in Honduras, arguing that it’s a “safe” country and attributing the current manifest insecurity to journalists with mental cobwebs who are maliciously trying to discredit his public administration.
Where did this thicket originate? Zelaya’s heart lies in Olancho, in the immense valleys of Lepaguare and Catacamas where he was born, lulled by the whinnying of horses and the lowing of cattle. His is a ranching family of thoroughbred landlords that can trace its roots directly back to the first colonizers. He was raised around fathers and grandfathers accustomed to being godfathers to all the sons and daughters of their ranch hands and grew up as a pretty boy sheltered by the attention of obedient servants. He was born to be a caudillo and run haciendas, tame horses, count cows and give orders to everybody. His parents were particularly interested in cultivating his vocation for the hacienda, which is why they didn’t mind him failing his civil engineering course in his very first year, although with great pomp his closest adulators insist on calling him “engineer.” Understanding Patricia Rodas is key to understanding Zelaya…
It’s impossible to explain President Zelaya’s “ideological thicket” without his party comrade, Patricia Rodas, who sang so enthusiastically to the left of Chávez, more so in fact than Rosario Murillo. Rodas destroys the patriarchal formula that behind every great man is a great woman. In this case, there’s a woman in front of a man claiming to be great.
Those who know Rodas insist that many of the President’s words and even gestures are copied from this young-looking woman who is in fact going on fifty. She is the youngest daughter of Modesto Rodas Alvarado, the biggest caudillo ever in the Liberal Party’s more than hundred-year history. Patricia considers herself the legitimate heir of the thinking and charisma of her father, who gave everything he had to win the presidency, but never did.
…and Rodas’ relationship with her father is key to understanding herDuring the 15-year dictatorship of Tiburcio Carías Andino (1933-1948), Modesto Rodas went into exile in neighboring Nicaragua, where he met Patricia’s mother, Margarita Baca. He returned to Honduras determined to become President. The end of the Carías regime had reawakened the Liberal movement; a new Constitution was promulgated in 1957 and that same year Ramón Villeda Morales became the first Liberal President in 25 years.
Rodas ran in the 1963 elections, complaining in his political campaign that there weren’t enough Honduran pine trees to hang his conservative adversaries. A coup d’état overthrew Vidella in October that year and installed a military junta under Oswaldo López Arellano. With his almost certain triumph short-circuited, the bushy-moustached man with in a cowboy hat went into exile again. Patricia, his youngest daughter, still recalls with a mixture of nostalgia and anger holding her father’s hand as they fled to Managua and then on to San José, pursued by the military, which, caught up in its own “ideological thicket,” was persecuting Liberals and Bolsheviks with equal fervor.
She spent the next years in elementary and high school. At the end of the seventies the military announced a return to democracy. For Liberal survivors of the cruel 1963 coup it was quite clear that Modesto Rodas was the only possible presidential candidate. While there were other presidential hopefuls, the “Lion of Liberalism” held the advantage; he would surely be the first President of the new constitutional order.
But this time it was a fatal heart attack that put an end to his challenge. He died in 1979, the same year as the Sandinista revolution and two years before the elections in Honduras. He was replaced by the “wizard” of peace, Roberto Suazo Córdova. After her father’s death, Patricia went to Nicaragua to join her mother and link her Liberal traditions to the Sandinista struggle. Her grief was riddled with suspicion; surely the Liberal caudillo’s adoring daughter has the right to suspect a criminal hand behind her father’s death.
A leftist against two impostersHer doubts naturally fueled other sources of anger she had locked up for many decades. Under President Villena Morales, her father had been president of Congress and Oscar A. Flores minister of transport. But Flores became an accomplice to López Arellano’s coup. When Suazo Córdova was elected President in 1981, he named Carlos Flores Facussé, Oscar A. Flores’ favorite son, as his presidential minister and right-hand man. Patricia Rodas viewed all of them as imposters: a President in a post that should have been occupied by her father and a fifth columnist’s son in the seat that should have been occupied by someone of the same pedigree.
All this happened when Patricia was in her first year at the agitated National Autonomous University of Honduras, committed at the time to the Sandinista and other Central American leftist movements and their struggles, through whose ranks she channeled her anger. It was with that leftist conviction that she sang so passionately in Managua’s Plaza of the Revolution in the early eighties. She was convinced she had to vindicate her father’s memory by mercilessly attacking the imposters occupying the highest posts in the Honduran government.
When the Left optedPatricia Rodas crossed the threshold from the eighties to the nineties with these leftist convictions and in an environment still infused by the Sandinista revolutionary eighties. Returning to Honduras, she met up with her university friends, who were still all tied to the political and symbolic armory of their leftist pasts. Among other “war trophies,” some had passed through the macabre clandestine jails that functioned in Honduras during the era of US Ambassador John Negroponte, President Suazo Córdova and his faithful minister Flores Facussé. Twenty-five years later as President Mel Zelaya’s foreign minister, Flores Facussé would drink at the same neoliberal table as Negroponte, currently one of the brains behind world “security.”
for the “lesser evil”
Patricia Rodas remained close to her leftist friends until Carlos Roberto Reina arrived on the scene in 1993. Presidential candidate Reina was a university law lecturer and a dyed-in-the-wool progressive Liberal who called on leftists to join his campaign. In the end he won with their support: faced with the danger of a victory by rightwing Conservative Oswaldo Ramos Soto, their sworn enemy during the student struggle of the late seventies and early eighties, they opted for the lesser evil.
The “beginners”A whole new chapter opened up with Reina. The Liberal Party had to be taken over to make the changes that the Left had found impossible. That was still the idea in 1997, when Carlos Flores Facussé ran for President on the Liberal ticket, and achieving it required pragmatism. Even if it meant supporting Flores, so be it, as long as it allowed them to appropriate more and more spaces within the party until they controlled it.
Meanwhile, after so many turns in her personal, political and ideological life, Patricia Rodas finally found her true path. Her love for her father and her nostalgia for a childhood of cowboy hats, horses and a firm hand rescued her from the ideological clutches of the Left, in whose circles she had moved for many years. She was seduced by the tall, elegant Mel Zelaya, who also sported a cowboy hat and bushy moustache. She taught him many of the Left’s skills and both found themselves trapped in a tangle of hacienda customs, attraction to the power of the Pentagon, admiration for Hugo Chávez, political cannibalism, Latin American revolution, patronage, nepotism and ostentation, and by extension Rosario Murillo’s multi-colored revolutionary plaza in Managua. A veritable ideological thicket.
She consolidated her relationship with Zelaya during Ricardo Maduro’s term. The 21st century was just beginning and Rodas and her group were making progress, with Zelaya at the head. The Maduro government allowed them to influence public opinion and accumulate advantages within the party. It was during his term that Flores—virtual owner of the Liberal Party—dubbed Patricia and her group the “beginners.”
The rising star of the In the 2005 electoral campaign everything suggested that the National Party was going to win and rumors were flying that Flores Facussé wanted Zelaya to lose because he couldn’t stand the “beginners.” Nonetheless, gossip also has it that a few days before election day in November Flores called his people together, including Rodas’ group, which he never accepted, and told them that if Zelaya lost the party would call people to account for the debacle. In the end, Flores threw his weight behind Zelaya, almost certainly in exchange for maintaining his influence over state decisions by ensuring the vice presidency of the National Congress for his daughter, Lizzy Flores Flakes.
“patricians” is slowly fizzling out
Miscalculations by losing Nationalist candidate Pepe Lobo—whose hard-line, pro-capital punishment campaign backfired on him—also helped give Mel Zelaya the victory. Little by little the “beginners” assumed the reigns of government, which Zelaya has run like a hacienda. They discarded the “beginners” nickname and acquired a new political identity under the name “the Patricians.”
But a year and a half into Zelaya’s administration, his victory seems to have been a Pyrrhic one. His government has left some 30 high-ranking public officials by the wayside and let each internal Liberal tendency fight over the government arenas to strengthen their own quotas of power until only two main tendencies have been left standing: the group of Carlos Flores Facussé—who has managed to unite all the Liberal Party’s past and present glories around the candidacy of Roberto Michelitti, currently he National Congress president—and that of the Patricians—which is very close to the President and controls the state budget but not the main national decisions.
Mel Zelaya may manage the presidential palace like a hacienda, but he doesn’t control those who really run the country and the two traditional political parties: the US Embassy, the owners of the mass media, the bankers, the maquila executives, the big traders and the organized crime barons. The Patricians have ended up stuck in the presidential palace with their President.
Zelaya and his Patricians are all alonePresident Zelaya’s “ideological thicket” has a political underpinning. Fully aware that his power is limited to the presidential palace and knowing the danger of what the foreign minister calls “economic powers that attack us from dark rooms on top floors of buildings in the capital and San Pedro Sula,” Managua’s euphoria and slogans at least give him a bit of a gloss.
Actually it’s more than just gloss. Mel Zelaya and his Patricians are cozying up to Hugo Chávez in search of foreign political support to recover the power they’ve lost domestically. Zelaya is surrounded only by the Patricians. His isolation is such common knowledge that both Liberal and National party leaders say the easiest solution politically would be to just overthrow the government. So he and the Patricians desperately need support from other quarters, particularly if they want to stay in power any longer than the rest of this term.
Ortega and Chávez offer them an international platform. The Patricians are also pushing Zelaya into Chávez’s arms as they need an oil agreement to get out from under the frustrated fuel tender that has totally collapsed after a year of negotiations.
Closer relations with Chávez could be the new card the Patricians are playing. And to win at this game they’re digging out of their contradictory pasts the moldy leftwing cards they knew and used years ago, flinging themselves into the void with no guaranteed political parachutes.
Hugo Chávez needs arenas in Central America, but nobody is quite sure what he’d want from the Patricians in return. And in Honduras, the Liberal bloc that holds the power will abandon to their fate those they haven’t forgiven for flirting with the Left. The US Embassy’s distrust will only increase, leading it to support any group that helps weaken the Patricians. It’s inevitable. The influence of Mel Zelaya and his Patricians in Honduran politics would appear to be in a free-fall as they reach out to Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega.
Parading through ManaguaIs Zelaya even aware of all of this? Can he glimpse it through his ideological thicket? Only two weeks after the revolutionary celebrations, with their songs, colors and fireworks, he returned to the Nicaraguan capital to strut through the streets during the traditional horse parade that is part of the festivities celebrating Santo Domingo, Managua’s patron saint. Mounted haughtily on an incredibly expensive horse, Zelaya was not accompanied by Patricia Rodas this time, but by his wife, Miss Honduras, his foreign minister and other top-ranking officials. Anything goes in the President’s ideological tangle and only the urgency of the power slipping through his hands provides a little understanding of Mel Zelaya’s current thoughts.
Ismael moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.