Interview with Nikolas Kozloff

by Jul 5, 2009All Articles

Nikolas Kozloff, journalist and author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. His previous book is Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. He blogs at

JUAN GONZALEZ: Father Bourgeois, we’d like to bring in our third guest here on this topic, Nikolas Kozloff, author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left.
Nik, Zelaya was not seen, when he first was elected, as any kind of a populist or a radical. Could you talk about his trajectory and what happened to him in his time in office that he has now become sort of the standard-bearer of the masses of Honduras?

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Sure, you’re right. I mean, Zelaya is a member of the business elite in Honduras. He’s a part of the Liberal Party, which is one of the two major parties in Honduras. And initially, he had supported the free trade agreement with the United States. But around 2007, 2008, as the region started to shift leftwards in South America, and you had the rise of, you know, Daniel Ortega in—of the Sandinista party in Nicaragua and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador of the FMLN, Zelaya started taking some more progressive positions, and most importantly in the foreign policy arena. You know, Honduras has had, traditionally, very strong ties to the United States, strong military ties. And so, when Zelaya started to embrace Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, that was hugely controversial amongst the Honduran elite and the media there. So this represented a sea change in Honduran politics.

And, you know, shortly thereafter, Hugo Chavez inserted himself into the local milieu. He came to Tegucigalpa, and there was a huge rally in support of something called the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas. It’s Chavez’s answer to the US-imposed free trade agreements in the region. And Zelaya had come out in support of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. And so, this set him at odds with the United States, and there was a history of friction between the US and Zelaya leading up to the coup.

And so, I think if you were just reading the reports in the mainstream media, you might get the impression that this coup is just about term limits in Honduras and it’s just a conflict over whether Zelaya will be able to extend his constitutional mandate of one four-year term. And my point is that there is an ideological component to this coup. You know, what did the coup plotters do? When they came into power, they roughed up the Venezuelan ambassador. They threatened and harassed a journalist working for Telesur, which is a satellite news network that’s run by Uruguay, Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela. So there’s a definite ideological component to this. And Roberto Micheletti, the new president, had actually opposed many of this—of foreign policy reorientation that Zelaya had favored in recent years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Didn’t he also, Zelaya, take other stands that were diametrically opposed to US policy? For instance, he began coming out questioning whether the drug war was a legitimate war and should—there should be a possible legalization of drugs. And also, didn’t he raise the minimum wage substantially in a country where there’s a lot of free trade zones and people working in factories for foreign companies?

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, right. I mean, the first salvo against the Honduran elite was his moves to raise the minimum wage by 60 percent. And you’re right. I mean, this is a country where you have these maquiladora assembly plants, and the Honduran elite were, to say the least, displeased by the moves.

And then, after that, he started taking some very controversial foreign policy initiatives, probably most controversially, as you point out, criticizing the US war on drugs. And that’s not surprising, given that in recent years drug violence has exacted a heavy toll in Honduran society. You have these drug gangs that carry out gruesome attacks, beheadings, eye gougings, very gruesome kinds of tactics. And so, Zelaya actually called for the legalization in order to lessen the violence in Honduras. And then the US ambassador, actually the outgoing US ambassador, Charles Ford, remarked as he was leaving Honduras that, well, actually, remittances of Hondurans to Honduras are mostly drug-related, as I think that was a sort of punishment against Zelaya for taking unpopular foreign policy initiatives. And then, actually, that just prompted Zelaya to shoot back that, you know, the US is responsible for a lot of the drug violence in Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nik, the letter that President Zelaya wrote to President Obama.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, I think it’s a very audacious move for the leader of a small Central American nation to write Obama personally. And this was in December of 2008, right after the election, even prior to the inauguration. And not only did he criticize US foreign policy in this letter, but what I think is really interesting is that he made it public, because he was upset by some of the remarks that the former US ambassador had made. And in his letter, he criticized the interventionist policies of the US ambassador.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but certainly continue to follow the developments. Again, President Zelaya, ousted in a military coup in Honduras, the leaders of that coup trained at the School of the Americas, will return tomorrow. He addressed the United Nations yesterday, is in Washington today, though apparently not meeting with either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton, will return tomorrow along with the Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who will accompany him. And if you want to go to our interview with President Correa of last week, when he came to the UN for a day, you can go to

Nik Kozloff, thanks for joining us. He’s author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. I want to also thank Father Roy Bourgeois, just outside the gates of WHINSEC, which is the new name for the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, standing for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. And Dr. Juan Almendares, head of the Honduran Peace Committee, presidential candidate who ran against Zelaya in 2005, now condemning the coup, calling for it to be undone.

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