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Rich Vs. Poor At Root Of Honduran Political Crisis

Supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya protest Saturday in the El Pedregal neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. (AFP/Getty Images)

In Honduras on Monday, de facto president Roberto Micheletti lifted an emergency decree and restored some civil liberties. He imposed the decree last week after nationwide protests erupted following the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

The protracted presidential standoff is highlighting the deep divisions in the country's society, which is split between a powerful yet tiny elite and the vast majority of poor, ordinary citizens.

Zelaya remains holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Both sides are calling for dialogue, but so far, there has been little progress on a negotiated settlement to the stalemate.

Since Zelaya — who is often referred to as "Mel" — was ousted, there have been protests in Tegucigalpa both for and against his return.

"In Honduras, we are accustomed to a government of the rich," says Marixa Gorgos, a pro-Zelaya demonstrator. "And the problem for our president, Mel Zelaya, was that he worked for the poor."

Poor Vs. Wealthy

On June 28, the military arrested Zelaya under orders from the Honduran Supreme Court. He was deported to Costa Rica. Zelaya managed to sneak back into the country on Sept. 21 and is taking refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

His return sparked a social upheaval in this nation of 7.8 million people.

Micheletti initially shut the country's airports and borders. At different times, Micheletti declared nationwide curfews, closed down pro-Zelaya media outlets and banned public gatherings. But Zelaya supporters, including Gorgos, continued to defy the ban.

"I'm here and I'm part of this fight because I don't want my children to live the same way I lived," she says, meaning in a country so sharply divided between the rich and poor.

Honduras is one of the original "banana republics." In the 1800s, U.S. firms set up fruit companies that exploited cheap Honduran labor to export bananas to the port of New Orleans.

While things have improved since the days of the company store, the vast majority of Hondurans remain in poverty.

Ramon Romero, a professor of economics at the National Autonomous University, says power in Honduras is in the hands of about 100 people from roughly 25 families. Others estimate the Honduran elite to be slightly larger, but still it is a tiny group.

Romero says the country's elite have always selected the nation's president. They initially helped Zelaya get into office, and then they orchestrated his removal from power.

What Motivated Zelaya's Ouster?

Micheletti, the de factor president, says Zelaya was "taken out" because he tried to change the rule of the Honduran Constitution, which prohibits presidents from even trying to extend their one term in office.

"[Zelaya] was doing that. He [doesn't] care. He disobeyed the Supreme Court and the Congress and everything," Micheletti says.

Micheletti and his supporters say Zelaya, despite only having a few months left in his term, was on the verge of creating a socialist state modeled after Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

But Romero, the economics professor, says this was a ruse. "The principal reason why the elites split from Zelaya was for economic and not political reasons," Romero says.

Zelaya ran for president as a center-right candidate but then moved sharply to the left while in office.

He governed with a bravado that endeared him to the poor and infuriated the rich. When Congress voted down his budget, Zelaya simply carried on without one.

When the business community and the trade unions locked horns over a minimum wage hike — business argued for no increase while labor wanted an 18 percent boost — Zelaya unilaterally raised the minimum wage 62 percent, to roughly $275 a month.

Several days after Zelaya slipped back into the country, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital yelling, "Mel Out! Mel Out!"

Protests Continue As Country Suffers

Jaime Perez, the chair of the industrial engineering department at a private university in Tegucigalpa, says Zelaya was going to turn Honduras into a communist state.

"We are trying to stand for peace and democracy. We are trying to fight back communism, because it has been proven that it doesn't work. It makes people that are poor [even] poorer. It's not solving the problems of the nations," Perez says.

The coup has been costly: Business groups say the country is losing millions of dollars a day. And there are signs that members of the elite are now desperate to find an end to the crisis. The head of the national Chamber of Industry even said the group might accept Zelaya being reinstalled, on a short leash, until next month's presidential elections.

Meanwhile, Zelaya's supporters — who call themselves La Resistencia, or the Resistance — hold protests almost every day in the capital.

One of their main arguments is that the elites in Honduras have had too much power for too long.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Honduras today, the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, lifted an emergency decree and restored some civil liberties. He had imposed the decree last week after protests erupted when the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, returned to Honduras. Zelaya remains holed up in the Brazilian embassy.

And as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Honduras, the country's power struggle highlights deep divisions in Honduran society.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The roots of the current political crisis in Honduras date back to the Spanish invasion of the 16th century. The social divisions are as steep as the ravines that cut through the country's tropical mountains. And the nation's future is as cloudy as the silt-laden rivers that meander toward both coasts.

Unidentified Group #1: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Ever since President Manuel Zelaya - who's often referred to as Mel -was ousted, there have been protests in the capital both for and against his return.

Ms. MARIXA GORGOS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In Honduras, we're accustomed to a government of the rich, says Marixa Gorgos. And the problem for our president, Mel Zelaya, was that he worked for the poor. On June 28, the military, under orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, arrested Zelaya. They then deported him to Costa Rica. Zelaya managed to sneak back into the country on September 21 and is taking refuge at the Brazilian embassy. His return sparked a social upheaval. The government of de facto President Micheletti initially shut the country's airports and borders. At different times, Micheletti declared nationwide curfews, closed down pro-Zelaya media outlets and banned public gatherings. But Zelaya supporters, including Gorgos, continued to defy the ban.

Ms. GORGOS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I'm here and I'm part of this fight because I don't want my children to live the same way I lived, she says - by which she means in a country so sharply divided between the rich and poor.

Honduras is one of the original banana republics. In the 1800s, U.S. firms set up vertically integrated fruit companies that exploited cheap Honduran labor to export bananas to the port of New Orleans. While things have improved since the days of the company store, the vast majority of Hondurans remain in poverty.

Professor RAMON ROMERO (Economics, National Autonomous University): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Ramon Romero, a professor of economics at the National Autonomous University, says power in Honduras is in the hands of about 100 people from roughly 25 families. Some other people estimate the Honduran elite to be slightly larger but still, it's a tiny group. Romero says the country's elite have always chosen the nation's president. They initially helped Zelaya get into office, and then they orchestrated his removal from power.

President ROBERTO MICHELETTI (Honduras): He tried to change the rule of our constitution.

BEAUBIEN: This is de facto President Roberto Micheletti. He says Zelaya was, in his words, taken out for violating a clause of the constitution that prohibits presidents from even trying to extend their one term in office.

Pres. MICHELETTI: He was doing that. He don't care. He disobeyed the Supreme Court and the congress and everything.

BEAUBIEN: Micheletti and his supporters say Zelaya, despite only having a few months left in his term, was on the verge of creating a socialist state modeled after Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Professor Romero says this was a ruse.

Prof. ROMERO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The principal reason why the elites split from Zelaya, he says, was for economic and not political reasons. Zelaya ran for president as a center-right candidate, then moved sharply to the left while in office. He governed with a bravado that endeared him to the poor and infuriated the rich. When congress voted down his budget, Zelaya simply carried on without one. When the business community and the trade unions locked horns over a minimum wage hike -business was arguing for no increase while labor wanted an 18 percent boost -Zelaya unilaterally raised the minimum wage 62 percent, to roughly $275 a month.

Unidentified Group #2: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Several days after Zelaya snuck back into the country, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital yelling: Mel out. Mel out.

Jaime Perez, the chair of the industrial engineering department at a private university in Tegucigalpa, says Manuel Zelaya was going to turn Honduras into a communist state.

Professor JAIME PEREZ: We're trying to stand for peace and democracy. We're trying to fight back communism because it has been proven that it doesn't work. It makes people that are poor, it's making them poorer. I mean, it's not solving the problems of the nations. So that's what we are standing here for today.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

BEAUBIEN: The coup in Honduras has been costly. Business groups say the country is losing millions of dollars a day. And there are signs that members of the elite are now desperate to find an end to the crisis. The head of the national Chamber of Industry even said they might accept Zelaya being reinstalled, on a short leash, until next month's presidential elections.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Meanwhile, Zelaya's supporters - who call themselves la Resistencia, or the Resistance - have protests almost every day in the capital. One of their main arguments is that the elites in Honduras have had too much power for too long.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Tegucigalpa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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