Who is the richest man in Honduras?
There are two competing narratives out there about the Honduras coup, and everything I have ever learned about Latin America tells me that both of them are unbelievable.
Narrative A--let's call it the "epiphany narrative", is being promulgated by U.S. lefties like Al Giordano and Caracas-based Chavez-ista Eva Golinger. In this version, Manuel Zelaya, scion of landed aristocracy, runs for President of Honduras on a center-right platform, and wins. Halfway into his term, overwhelmed by the injustice and poverty he now realizes exist in Honduras, he turns his back on his class origins, becomes a populist, allies with Hugo Chavez. Soon the military (backed, of course, by unnamed powerful oligarchs and the CIA) kidnaps the brave new populist in a vicious coup d'etat.
Narrative B--let's call it the "pajama democracy narrative" comes from the right, and it's even more incredible. In this one, Zelaya is a foaming, power-hungry leftist who falls under the thrall of Hugo Chavez, then tries to force a referendum in order to ensure he can be President for as long as he likes. The legislature and supreme court, horrified by this flaunting of Honduran law, pass a resolution to oust Zelaya for his illegal acts, then unleash some S.O.A.-trained generals to keep Honduras safe for democracy. They uphold the rule of law by grabbing the pajama-clad president in the middle of the night and flying him to Costa Rica.
Neither of these narratives works for me.
So what's really going on in Honduras? It's been nagging me all week. My instinct was that behind the ideological bluster and Zelaya's airplane theatrics was a buried feud or a pissing match between two powerful men. But I didn't know where to begin looking for the story. Then this morning the answer dawned on me, in the form of a question:
Who is the richest man in Honduras?
Answer: Jaime Rosenthal Oliva
Rosenthal is Honduras' "kingpin". Through his Grupo Continental, he runs over 100 million dollars worth of Honduran businesses. You name it, he's into it: a bank, an insurance company, a broadcast TV network, a cable TV network, real estate, agri-business, cattle, cement, and a joint Honduran-Israeli venture to export crocodile skins.
It gets more interesting. Rosenthal is a leader of Honduras' Liberal Party--that's Zelaya's party, too. He's run for president a number of times himself, and backed Zelaya's 2005 campaign for president. His favorite son, Yani, was a regional coordinator of Zelaya's campaign. According to this very enlightening article from IPS news service,
...the Zelaya administration, which took office in January 2006, has had friction with some of the country's most powerful business groups, because the cabinet includes members of the Jewish business community headed by Rosenthal, which is at loggerheads with the country's most influential families of Arab origin.
Given Zelaya's marked differences with some power groups, who is he governing with?
With the Rosenthal family and another business sector not linked to the traditional structures, who intend, together with the president, "to set a distance between themselves and those who have exploited this country for years," said the presidential adviser who spoke to IPS.
So it seems that Zelaya's is an old caudillo story after all, in which new business money puts up its shadow candidate against the entrenched traditional oligarchy. After Zelaya won in 2006, he placed Rosenthal allies in key cabinet positions. Rosenthal's inexperienced son, Yani became Minister of the Presidency. In that post, Yani was in charge of choosing which international oil companies got to import their product into Honduras. In what I've no doubt was a fair, considered and thoroughly transparent deal, Yani handed the import monopoly for all Honduras' oil to Conoco Phillips.
But then Yani abruptly resigned the Zelaya administration at the end of 2007.
The word is that Rosenthal senior dearly wants to see his favorite son become president. He's hired a top international consulting firm to advise his forthcoming campaign.
It's unclear whether Yani--and his father-- broke with Zelaya in a friendly or antagonistic manner, but a break there was. And the events that followed suggest that Zelaya's mid-term "epiphany" wasn't about the suffering of the Honduran people, but his own endangered political career. Having lost one wealthy powerful patron, Zelaya moved quickly to find a replacement: Hugo Chavez.
Exactly a month after Yani's departure, in January 2008, Zelaya arranged for Honduras to join Venezuela's Petrocaribe, an arrangement that brought 20,000 barrels of crude a day to the country at favored prices. A few months later, in August of 2008, Honduras joined ALBA.
So where does the coup fit into all this? I see a couple of possibilities. It's possible that the coup was masterminded by the old Honduran oligarchs, who seized upon the excuse of Zelaya's Chavez tilt to quash the upstart capitalist Rosenthal and his ambitions for his son Yani. Or maybe Rosenthal and Zelaya have bad blood (over Yani's oil payoffs?), and Rosenthal decided he'd rather have a different political proxy (Roberto Michelletti, the new "president", who's also from the Liberal Party) to be a placeholder until his son can run in the next presidential election.
In any case, there are no good guys here, not on the right the left or in the middle--only money, power, dynasty and cojones. It's the stuff of which great Mexican ballads, or corridos are written.