In the weeks leading up to Honduras’s coup, President Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, knew what he was doing. In pushing the limits of democracy by trying to force a constitutional change that would permit his re-election, he set a trap for the military. The military fell for it, turning an unpopular president who was nearing the end of his term into an international cause célèbre.
Although the coup has popular support in Honduras, it has also allowed Mr. Chávez, who is leading the international response, to claim the moral high ground. The coup leaders, who were trying to prevent Mr. Chávez from bringing Honduras into his fold, may end up giving him more strength in the region.
Mr. Chávez quickly came out in support of Mr. Zelaya. He threatened Honduras with military action and went to Nicaragua, where a meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, the Caracas-led alliance born as an alternative to the American-led Free Trade Area of the Americas, was the perfect opportunity to take charge of the Latin American pro-Zelaya effort.
The Organization of American States later condemned the coup (other Latin American governments followed suit) and its secretary general flew to Nicaragua, where a wider regional meeting was arranged. Mr. Chávez sent an airplane to fly Mr. Zelaya to that gathering, even welcoming him at the airport in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.
Across the Spanish-language news media, the recurring image of the last two days has been that of Mr. Chávez and his allies working furiously for Honduran democracy. The United States’ more measured response, and the low-profile stance taken by some South American governments, have been lost amid the high-stakes campaign launched by Venezuela’s caudillo.
This is not what Honduras’s establishment, horrified by Mr. Chávez’s increasing influence, intended when it got rid of Mr. Zelaya. It is also a pretty surreal turn of events for those who followed the career of the deposed president. A member of Honduras’s landed oligarchy, Mr. Zelaya came to power in 2006 as the leader of the Liberal Party, a center-right organization. He was a product of the establishment: an heir to the family fortune, he had devoted decades to his agriculture and forestry enterprises, supported the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and ran for president on a conservative platform, promising to be tough on crime and to cut the budget.
Around halfway into his term, however, Mr. Zelaya had an apparent ideological epiphany and became an admirer of Mr. Chávez. He signed a deal for a generous oil subsidy from Venezuela; last year he incorporated Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Soon enough, power went to his head.
As the general elections scheduled for November began to creep up, Mr. Zelaya decided to hold a referendum with the ultimate aim of allowing him to seek re-election. The move violated articles of the Constitution that forbid changes to the presidential limit of one four-year term and establish the legal procedure for constitutional amendments. The electoral court, the Supreme Court, the attorney general, Congress and members of his own party declared Mr. Zelaya’s intention unlawful. Then, on Sunday, the military stepped in.
The ideal solution would be for Mr. Zelaya to return to power and leave office next year, when his successor takes over. However, it is doubtful that the coup leaders will back down. It is also unlikely that, if he were triumphantly reinstated, Mr. Zelaya would give up his re-election scheme. All of this almost guarantees a period of illegitimate rule in Honduras — and of incessant exploitation of the situation by Mr. Chávez, the unlikely champion of Jeffersonian democracy in Latin America.
Álvaro Vargas Llosa, senior fellow of the Independent Institute and the editor of Lessons from the Poor.