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HONDURAS: Zelaya personality cult persisted in presidential bathroom even after the coup


Statue of Zelaya mysteriously appeared in middle of Honduran national heroes in July. (Photo: El Heraldo)

Back in November, when the Honduran coup regime was still deliberating how best to respond to the fact that the elected president of the country was living in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, I spent several hours one day waiting at the presidential palace for a press conference scheduled to follow a visit by United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly. The conference ended up consisting solely of coup government negotiator Vilma Morales, who assured the press that Kelly had reiterated U.S. support for a Honduran solution to the Honduran problem; she failed to explain why U.S. support for illegitimate Honduran elections did not affect the nationality of the solution.

While waiting for the event to begin, I asked the young man behind the desk in the visitors office to direct me to the bathroom and was told that there was no toilet paper. When I expressed surprise that basic hygiene items were lacking in places other than the Brazilian embassy—where Honduran police had been intercepting toothbrushes en route to ousted President Mel Zelaya and his interned companions—the young man assured me that the bathrooms in the interior of the presidential palace were properly equipped.

The palace is situated around a courtyard, on one side of which are located a bench and four statues of national heroes, two of them sitting on the bench and two standing. After a certain amount of negotiating, I was given a visitor’s pass and instructions to walk straight across the courtyard to the bathroom and back; I was not given a warning that a sudden feeling of being observed from above by an oversized man while washing my hands would be a result of the fact that a bust of Zelaya had been positioned on a shelf outside the door.

I had first heard of this bust from a female university student in designer sunglasses who informed me that its existence indicated a cult of personality and that, had the coup not prevented it, Zelaya would have installed such monuments to himself all over the country. It was thus somewhat disappointing to discover that the bust did not at all rival late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s gold statue that rotated in accordance with the position of the sun, and that Zelaya’s likeness appeared to have been crafted with papiermâché.

I returned to the visitors office, where the man behind the desk suggested that the coup regime had simply needed a place to store the creation in case the Honduran solution to the Honduran problem involved reinstating Zelaya for a few days. He admitted to having come across a similarly unexpected piece of art one day in July, when a statue of Zelaya—sculpted by the same amateur artist, who had improved slightly with practice and had also sculpted the four statues of the national heroes—turned up in the courtyard in the middle of the heroes. Honduran newspapers dutifully sounded the alarm that the bust and statue of the ousted president had “appeared” in the presidential palace; the appearance was conveyed via photographs of the now five statues around the bench and was presumably due to the fact that at this point the coup government had already had access to presidential storage rooms for several weeks. (The statue of Zelaya was naturally removed from the courtyard following the photo opportunity.)

The artist in question, Juan José Valle Larios from the town of Ocotepeque, had received support from Zelaya after his financially-driven artistic aspirations had been rejected by previous administrations unsympathetic to his desire to purchase medicines for afflicted family members. Zelaya’s tendency to invest in such projects enabled the coup government to accuse him of having rashly squandered funds, despite the fact that he was not the one who had contributed over half a million dollars to U.S. lobbying firms in order to counteract unfavorable impressions of the coup; additional accusations included the suspected existence of a statue of Che Guevara. Honduran economic priorities were meanwhile recently underscored when the National Association of Industries of Honduras proclaimed coup president Roberto Micheletti the first national hero of the twenty-first century.

I visited the palace again a few days after my encounter with the bust of Zelaya and acquired another visitor’s pass to use the bathroom, during which trip I learned that the soldiers in charge of opening the gate to the courtyard could not correctly identify the four national heroes and that the bust had been removed from its perch. The janitor informed me that it had been transferred to a more discreet location after frightening too many bathroom-goers—a fright which may yet be visited upon bathroom-goers in other Latin American capitals once the Honduran model is fully comprehended.


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