Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is moving to consolidate his hold on Honduras, after orchestrating the return last Saturday of his puppet, Manuel Zelaya. Officials in Chávez’s inner circle are wondering how their cash-strapped government can finance yet another “revolutionary” government in Central America. What they fail to realize is that Chávez’s backup plan is to sow chaos in Honduras so it is hospitable territory for his partners in the illegal drug trade and a headache for the United States and Mexico.
Sources within the Venezuelan foreign ministry are delighted that Honduran President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo was so quick to pledge his loyalty to Chávez and the same radical reforms that got Zelaya deposed in 2009.
Lobo’s surrender came at a secret meeting in mid-May with Venezuelan envoy Ariel Vargas, held far from the presidential palace at Lobo’s suburban home northeast of the capital. According to sources inside the Venezuelan government, Lobo posed as a fervent revolutionary and begged for Chávez’s patience as he maneuvered around domestic opposition to fundamental constitutional reforms that will allow the people to sweep aside the old order. Lobo suggested to Vargas that he needed help in neutralizing opposition within his own Nationalist Party and the Catholic Church.
Lobo explained a delicate political balance in the country where he could only count on the military for support; officials in Caracas interpreted this as an invitation for Chávez to buy the military’s loyalty to bolster Lobo’s ability to challenge the entrenched power structure. Lobo cautioned that he would lose the military’s backing if he were to label Zelaya’s ouster a coup d'état or call for the punishment of those involved. Indeed, Lobo emphasized this point by joking that if he were to take these particular steps Chávez should be prepared to offer him political exile.
Venezuelan diplomats familiar with Lobo’s offer agreed that the most appealing part of his proposed pact is that they would no longer have to rely on the mercurial Zelaya, whom they have come to regard as a clown and a pest. Chávez will let Lobo believe that they are partners, but the Venezuelan will never accept the rightist Nationalist Party president as an instrument of radical change. Instead, Caracas already has begun to pour millions in support to the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), which will soon be accredited as a political party as part of the “national reconciliation” deal imposed by Chávez. By fabricating a well-financed rival to Honduras’ two traditional political parties, Chávez is convinced that he can rout the opposition and install minority governments to push through drastic economic and social changes.
Hondurans know that Chávez’s real interest in their country is its ideal location for trafficking drugs from South America to markets in the north. For example, the Chávez regime provides indispensable logistical support to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. By abetting this poisonous trade, Chávez is waging asymmetrical warfare against two political enemies: Mexico (whose president, Felipe Calderón, was elected on an anti-Chávez campaign) and the United States.
Those drug trafficking routes are also attractive to terrorist groups; according to published reports the same Hezbollah operatives who are offered refuge and training in Venezuela have sought advice from Mexican drug cartels on how to cross the U.S. border undetected.
For Chávez, Honduras is a win-win-win proposition. If he manages to install a friendly government, he will have a malleable partner who will join the conspiracy against the United States. If his machinations merely sow political chaos and social mayhem, his allies in the illegal drug trade will prosper. And, in either case, saving Honduras will require heavy lifting and substantial support by the United States.
Not very long ago, Hondurans were united in the pride at having used their constitution to thwart Zelaya from imposing a Chavista agenda on their small nation. In the intervening months, Chávez has imposed his will, using petrodollars to stir up violent strikes and wear down his opponents. As in other countries that find themselves pulled into Chávez’s orbit, his work is made easier by cynical politicians who think they can out maneuver him by making secret, self-serving bargains.
Lobo would be wise to remember the admonition of President John F. Kennedy, who said in a less remembered portion of his famous inaugural address 50 years ago, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Then again, in light of his alliances with drug traffickers and terrorists, Hugo Chávez is on his way to learning a similar lesson.
Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.