CARACAS (Reuters) - When the army ousted Honduras’ president, his Venezuelan ally Hugo Chavez at first let loose with typical ire by blaming Washington and threatening military action.
But then he went uncharacteristically quiet.
Soldiers whisked President Manuel Zelaya from his home on June 28 then flew him out of the country. The coup was a blow for the Venezuelan president’s alliance of leftist Latin American countries, which recently welcomed coffee and textile exporter Honduras into its trade club, Alba.
Chavez’s first reaction was aggressive. He put his armed forces on alert and vowed to topple the government that the Honduran Congress installed hours after the coup.
“The bourgeoisie and the empire are attacking Alba on its weakest flank,” Chavez told Venezuelan soldiers at a parade last week. “We know they are preparing new offensives in Central America, the Caribbean and South America so we must be ready 24 hours a day,”
But recognizing he could inflame tensions by taking too public a role, the Venezuelan leader has since largely stayed out of the limelight, while keeping busy in the wings.
He was noticeably absent when his friends President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa flew back and forth between Washington and Central America to back Zelaya.
“Avoiding being the protagonist and not being there in the center of events has suited him politically” said Latin America expert Edgardo Lander of Venezuela’s Central University.
If Chavez calculated his lower-key approach gave the ousted Honduran a better chance of being reinstated, it also made it easier for the United States to broker talks that start on Thursday in Costa Rica between Zelaya and the coup leaders.
It is the second time in a month Chavez has stepped back and let others head the public diplomacy, in a sign he knows his controversial style can obstruct foreign policy goals.
When the Alba group helped push the Organization of American States to end a 47-year suspension of Cuba last month, the Venezuelan leader also let allies such as Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega lead negotiations.
Popular with the poor after 10 years in office, Chavez is loathed by many middle class and wealthy Latin Americans.
Honduras’ interim government, which says it deposed Zelaya because of what it views as his illegal attempts to lift presidential term limits, is hostile about ties with Venezuela. Zelaya critics say the term limits move was influenced by Chavez.
While not in the spotlight, Chavez has been busy. His foreign minister and top aides spent most of last week in Central America and he was in regular phone contact with leftist elders Fidel Castro of Cuba and Ortega.
Venezuela cut oil supplies to Honduras and lent a plane and a pilot for Zelaya’s return attempt on Sunday that was aborted when Honduran soldiers blocked the runway in Tegucigalpa. Other countries in the Organization of American States had advised Zelaya not to make the trip.
Chavez cut short his participation in Venezuela’s independence day celebration on Sunday to follow the action.
U.S. President Barack Obama has backed Zelaya and condemned the coup, making a point on Tuesday of saying that the issue for Washington is about preserving democracy, regardless of whether Zelaya has been a friend of U.S. policy.
Obama has sought to ease the Bush administration’s tense relations with Latin America’s leftist leaders, and his stance on Honduras may undercut Chavez’s anti-U.S. position.
“Clearly, part of the intention is to avoid Hugo Chavez stealing the show, to avoid that an eventual restitution of President Zelaya is seen as a victory for Chavez,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Only last year Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador from Venezuela and slammed “Yankee imperialism” during a spat involving charges that Washington supported violent protests against his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Relations are better now and the ambassadors have just been restored. Chavez still lambasts the United States while mostly avoiding harsh criticism of Obama.
It remains to be seen whether Chavez will take offense at Washington stealing his thunder and assuming an active role in the region’s diplomacy.
After meeting Zelaya on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview to anti-Chavez Venezuelan TV station Globovision, which the president threatens to close.
She hailed the renewed dialogue with Venezuela but used language that implied the United States was unhappy with some of Chavez’s domestic policies.
“What we hope we will see over the next months in Venezuela is a recognition that you can be a very strong leader and have very strong opinions without trying to take on too much power and trying to silence all your critics,” she said.
Additional reporting by Esteban Israel in Havana and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Frances Kerry