June 29, 2009 / 2:06 AM / 10 years ago

RPT-ANALYSIS-Honduran coup a blow, but Chavez rallies leftist bl

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* Honduran ouster blow for Chavez influence

* Rattling sabers, Chavez rallies allies

* Global crisis still turns smaller nations to Chavez

By Patrick Markey

BOGOTA, June 29 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost an ally with the ouster on Sunday of the Honduran president, but the steadfast U.S. antagonist is rattling sabers and rallying his leftist political bloc during a regional test for the White House.

Honduran troops overthrew President Manuel Zelaya, a member of Chavez’s ALBA trade bloc, after he sought to amend the constitution to extend his time in office — just as Chavez and leftist allies in Ecuador and Bolivia did before him.

Chavez, a foe of U.S. trade and foreign policy in Latin America, has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to become a flag-bearer for leftist sentiment in the region, especially during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Within hours of Zelaya’s ouster, Chavez planned an emergency summit in Nicaragua of ALBA allies and warned that he would respond militarily if Honduran forces kidnap or harm his diplomats in the Central American country.

Chavez, who himself had been briefly ousted in a 2002 coup he blamed on Bush, also said he wanted a probe into any role the CIA may have played in Zelaya’s toppling.

ALBA "will present this as proof of a conspiracy against their movement," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida-based professor of Latin American studies. "The U.S. cannot afford to be accused of being involved in this in any way."

President Barack Obama expressed concern over Zelaya’s ouster, while U.S. officials dismissed claims the country supported the coup.

But ALBA, whose members include Cuba and Nicaragua, has few tools as a group to pressure for action involving Honduras beyond diplomatic measures and tough statements.

For years, Washington portrayed Chavez as a threat to the region. But Obama offered him a new start, and Chavez has generally toned down his attacks on the "U.S. empire" since.

OIL DIPLOMACY IN TIMES OF CRISIS

Chavez, a loyal partner of communist-ruled Cuba, has also tried to woo allies in international forums like the United Nations and the Organization of American States or OAS.

But his anti-Washington rhetoric cost his foreign policy initiatives in the past. He lost out on a U.N. Security Council seat after blasting Bush as a devil.

Despite Chavez’s entreaties, some in the region are looking for friendlier U.S. ties and ways to ward off the global economic crisis.

Rather than model himself on Chavez or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, the new El Salvadoran leader Mauricio Funes said he was more inclined to follow the moderate leftist path of Brazil, the region’s heavyweight.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended Funes’ inauguration — even though his party is that of former Marxist guerrillas who once battled U.S.-backed governments.

Chavez and Ortega skipped the inauguration.

Still, with world crude prices creeping up to $70 a barrel, and with experts predicting even higher prices for oil when global growth resumes, Chavez remains a key player in Latin America, especially in the backyard of U.S. geopolitical sway of the Caribbean and Central America.

Fellow OPEC country Ecuador has added its energy heft to Chavez’s ALBA accord, while Guatemala this month became the 18th member of Chavez’s PetroCaribe alliance, which offers oil shipments on credit or in exchange for goods.

The PetroCaribe energy pact has earned Chavez high praise in the Caribbean for allowing cash-strapped nations to free up financing and survive high oil prices.

(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami, editing by Philip Barbara)




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