Ousted Honduran leader unlikely working class hero

LEPAGUARE, Honduras Thu Jul 9, 2009 1:22pm EDT

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LEPAGUARE, Honduras (Reuters) - A wealthy Honduran landowner whose fortune was aided by cheap labor and whose father was once jailed for links to a peasant massacre has become an unlikely working class hero to some, a traitor to his class for others.

Yet Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president of Honduras who will seek reinstatement during talks in Costa Rica on Thursday, is idolized by many in his ranching homestead, a sprawling mountain valley still known as the Zelaya family hacienda.

Long before becoming president, Zelaya was known for doling out cash, land and food to residents, many of whom deepened their support for "Melito" once in office after he brought them electricity, homes and a soccer field with a chain-linked fence they call a stadium.

"Everything we have we owe to President Zelaya," said Sonia Zavala, 40, a community organizer who said 300 of Lepaguare's 400 residents made the 3-hour bus trip to Tegucigalpa, the capital, to join recent protests for Zelaya's reinstatement.

Elected as a moderate in 2005, Zelaya turned to the left once in office and further created enemies by aligning himself with socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

He was due to step down in 2010 but clashed with the country's elite, Supreme Court and military over his plans on holding a vote last month to gauge public support for extending presidential term limits.

His critics worried he would eventually try to keep himself in power, following the example of Chavez. A dispute over the vote's legality led to the June 28 coup.

Opinion polls before he was ousted showed low approval ratings for Zelaya. A CID-Gallup survey published in La Prensa newspaper on Thursday showed 41 percent of respondents considered his ouster justified versus 28 percent who were against it. The other 31 percent said they did not know.

Even Zelaya's hometown support base was unsettled with his closeness to Chavez, who has long sought leftist allies in Latin America and who dubbed the Stetson-wearing rancher and logger baron "Commander Cowboy."

"He's been a good president in everything but the only bad thing he did was ally himself with Chavez," said Roger Cerna, 20, a lanky farm worker. "(Chavez) is in charge of his country, he doesn't run this country."

RUNS COUNTRY "LIKE HACIENDA"

Political analysts said Zelaya took office with a weak support base and that his government lacked direction, even while he pushed social spending in one of the Americas' poorest nations. He then lost the support of his own party and the country's business elites when he raised the minimum wage late last year.

Surrounded by leftist ideologue advisers, analysts said, Zelaya hoped to join the ranks of Latin American leftist leaders to gain a political identity, solidify a support base, and reap the cheap oil benefits brought by a relationship with Chavez.

"I'm not sure Zelaya has any political convictions," said Mark Ruhl, a Honduras specialist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "I think he decides, 'This is my best chance to prosper in Honduran politics because I'm not doing very well inside the country. I need resources from outside, which will help buy a lot of support.'"

The gambit failed in part because Honduras does not have a leftist political tradition.

"Honduran politics has always been center-right to far-right," said Christine Wade, a political scientist at Washington College. "Political parties in Honduras are really just vehicles for the wealthy to maintain power."

Efrain Diaz, a Honduran political analyst, said Zelaya was typical of Honduran presidents and rural strongmen.

"He runs the country as he runs his hacienda: 'I'm the boss and everyone else are peons'," Diaz said.

Lepaguare is part of the central Honduran department of Olancho, known for its pistol- and machete-toting men with a macho streak. In 1975, there was a massacre of 14 peasant activists at the Zelaya ranch. Zelaya's father was jailed for five years and later pardoned, said Juan Ramon Martinez, a political analyst and researcher. Some Zelaya family supporters blame the massacre on the military.

"Those of us from Olancho are very radical and I don't think there is anything to negotiate," said Augusto Breve, an adviser and longtime friend of Zelaya. "We have to restore President Zelaya and put the coup plotters in jail."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Frances Kerry)

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