If technology is changing the political battle-space, how do we think about what is happening in Honduras? Starting with a framework that says this is a Chavez-led virtual offensive, what is he trying to achieve?
The offensive appeared to be a win/win proposition for him. In the event that Zelaya initially succeeded in winning a plebiscite (and most likely dismissing the existing Honduran institutions), Chavez of course would have established another client state. He also would have successfully tested the new US administration. Perhaps most importantly, he would have been well on his way to dislodging the US from its strategic air base (Palmerola) outside of the Honduran capital. This is particularly important since the airbase in Manta, Ecuador will not have its lease renewed by Chavez’s ally Correa this year. Without these two strong points, the US drug war and influence in the region will weaken materially.
In a slightly less successful scenario, the plebiscite process would lead to Honduran civil unrest or even civil war, and Chavez’s goals would also be advanced; the strongpoint would still be weakened. A proxy war also provides a rallying point, a cause celebre to showcase Bolivarianism before the world, and in the medium term it would not matter if he actually won.
As much as Chavez’s plans were derailed by the expulsion of Zelaya, this middle scenario is still playing out. Zelaya’s martyr status before the UN is a public relations victory for Chavez. As a mere pawn, Zelaya may not know where he is sleeping from night to night, but Chavez is sleeping very well with the progress of events. More important than the public relations win, Chavez has already succeeded in putting distance between the US and Honduras. He has weakened the strongpoint. Having Obama on the record and on his side, of course, is the “coup” de grace.
When it is understood that Chavez wins in Honduras just by screwing things up, it becomes clear that the move to remove Zelaya from the country was tactically the correct one for Hondurans. The ejection still may not guarantee final victory, but the chances have been much improved. The fait accompli of an “on-the-record plebiscite” (whose illegitimacy would be forgotten) was avoided. Congress and other institutions have not been immediately dissolved to serve the “peoples will.” Instead, a unified institutional front has appeared to the world, and headlines are focused much more on Zelaya as a flawed individual than they otherwise would be. Meanwhile, Honduras controls the ground and the streets of Tegucigalpa, at least on the first turn.
In Chess, one maxim is to complicate things where you are losing or where your opponent is strong: shake things up. Conversely where you are winning or strong you should simplify things to force your advantage. By complicating the American strong point, Chavez makes a good strategic move. But by removing Zelaya and responding with unified institutions, the Hondurans made a strong and unexpected countermove. They “simplified” their home terrain.
The expulsion of Zelaya also changes the time dynamic in favor of Honduras. With a scheduled election only months away, the logic for allowing the new elections to solve the crisis will grow stronger. For this reason Chavez must move very quickly to reinstall Zelaya on the ground with some form of legitimacy, and along with this he must also create some chaos. (Incidentally, keeping up the pressure also serves as a useful global distraction that benefits his ally, Iran.)
A smooth institutional transfer of power is his worst case scenario. It means he will have been tactically defeated in this instance. But it also holds out a strategic threat. If the brave Hondurans can protect their institutions against his influence, perhaps Bolivians, Ecuadorans, and Nicaraguans will too. Perhaps, so will Venezuelans.
This brings us full circle to the question of what Chavez wants to achieve. Totalitarians are focused first and foremost on destroying other competing power centers in their home turf. By nationalizing the private sector in Venezuela over time he has tightened his control of the important asset: oil. To maintain this control he must have a cause that provides cover, and expansionist Bolivarianism is the perfect “distraction.” A la 1984, a constant foreign war obscures a lower standard of living and a loss of civil rights. Any foreign setback, however, risks a backlash that could embolden domestic opposition in Venezuela. (This construct also works to explain expansionist mullahs in Iran).
So Chavez will keep the pressure on. Through all means possible he will create unrest in Honduras and otherwise undermine the new government’s legitimacy. He may have to spend a few more hours of oil production to fund this effort, but the mechanisms are in place. Already, foreign “labor” groups are forming at Honduras’s borders to demonstrate. These demonstrations will form a counter-weight in the press to the overwhelmingly pro-Micheletti demonstrations inside Honduras itself. They will also send a signal to the leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala as to how the wind is blowing in their own countries. By next week we should expect to have seen violence; he cannot afford to wait any longer.