By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, June 30 -- The two presidents of Honduras were headed on a collision course Tuesday, as the president ousted by a coup vowed to return and his replacement threatened to arrest him the minute he lands.
Neither side seemed willing to bend in a looming confrontation that is the first test of the Obama administration's diplomacy and clout in the hemisphere.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, removed from office Sunday in a military-led coup, addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday and said he would fly back to Honduras on Thursday, accompanied by the head of the Organization of American States.
But the newly appointed interim president of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, warned that if Zelaya returns, he will be arrested, tried and sent to prison for years. Micheletti's claim on the presidency is seen as illegitimate by the international community.
"If he comes back to our country, he would have to face our tribunals and our trials and our laws," Micheletti said in an interview with The Washington Post at his residence in the hills overlooking the capital. "He would be sent to jail. For sure, he would go to prison."
Micheletti said he did not see any way to negotiate with the Obama administration and international diplomats seeking a return of Zelaya to power because, Micheletti insisted, Zelaya was guilty of crimes against the country.
"No, no compromise, because if he tries to come back or anyone tries to bring him back, he will be arrested," Micheletti said.
At the United Nations, Zelaya told the assembly, "I'm going back to calm people down. I'm going to try to open a dialogue and put things in order."
Zelaya, whose politics moved to the left during his three years in office, has become close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has been the most vocal and belligerent critic of the coup, threatening to "overthrow" the new government.
"When I'm back, people are going to say, 'Commander, we're at your service,' and the army will have to correct itself," Zelaya told the assembly. "There's no other possibility."
Yet other possibilities do exist. Thousands of Hondurans rallied Tuesday in the central plaza of the capital, Tegucigalpa, to support the forced removal of Zelaya and to shout their support for the armed forces.
"It would be a disgrace to have him back in the country," said Emilio Larach, owner of a large building materials company here, who attended the rally to denounce Zelaya. "He created hate among the Honduran people. Everyone in the government was against him."
As the rally was underway, a small, anxious but growing group of Honduran lawmakers sought to build a coalition to endorse a compromise measure to allow for Zelaya's return. According to one participant in the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of derailing the negotiations, the compromise would include a general amnesty for everyone involved, including the coup leaders and members of the military, while Zelaya would have to abandon his plan to hold a referendum that could lead to a change in the Honduran constitution.
Critics have charged that Zelaya in his nonbinding referendum was seeking a change in the constitution that would allow him to serve for more than one term as president.
The lawmakers seeking a compromise, however, have not yet begun to work with U.S. diplomats here, according to U.S. Embassy press officer Chantal Dalton. "They haven't been in contact with us," Dalton said. "This is smoke and signals. Nobody here has heard anything."
At the United Nations, Zelaya said he would agree not to push his referendum. "I'm not going to hold a constitutional assembly," he said. "And if I'm offered the chance to stay in power, I won't. I'm going to serve my four years."
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher and timber baron, said he would go back to his farm after his term ends in January. "I come from the countryside, and I'm going to go back to the countryside," he said.
The streets of Tegucigalpa were calm Tuesday, though the city is awash in rumors that Venezuela is marshaling forces for a possible invasion.
Micheletti cautioned the world that his army was on alert and prepared to defend the country. Honduran reservists have been called to their barracks to donate blood.
"Our army also consists of 7.5 million people prepared to defend freedom and liberty," said Micheletti, who stressed that Hondurans are a peaceful people.
Media outlets friendly to Zelaya have been shut down, and some reporters are hiding -- as are a dozen members of Zelaya's former cabinet. Most Hondurans must rely on newspapers and television stations that support the coup. Cable news outlets such as CNN en Español have occasionally been blacked out, though it is still possible to get outside news via satellite.
Micheletti and his supporters insist that the world does not understand what happened here. They say that Zelaya was found guilty by a Supreme Court tribunal, that his arrest by the military was legal and that Zelaya was attempting to circumvent Honduras's Congress and courts by staging the referendum.
The interim president said he thought his country could hold out long enough for world opinion to turn its way. Venezuela has said it would suspend oil shipments, and Honduras's neighbors -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua -- announced that they would stop overland trade.
"That is why I want to make a call to our allies in the United States, that they should stick with us at this very important moment in the life of the country," Micheletti said. "The economy of our country is completely destroyed -- because of the acts of the former government. If aid [from the United States and Europe] keeps coming, we will show that every little penny that we borrowed will be spent for the people of this country."
Micheletti promised that Honduras would hold presidential elections in November and that a new president would take office in January. Micheletti, who is a leader of the Liberal Party, the same party that Zelaya belongs to, vowed that he would not run for president.
Micheletti also said that Zelaya is a master at bending world opinion his way. Another source in the government here said that Zelaya actually was wearing a crisply ironed dress shirt when he was sent into exile in Costa Rica, but that he changed to a white T-shirt to show how he was hustled out of his official residence at dawn while still in his pajamas.
Senior Obama officials said that an overthrow of the Zelaya government had been brewing for days and that they worked behind the scenes to stop the military and its conservative, wealthy backers from pushing Zelaya out. That the United States failed to stop the coup gives anti-U.S. leaders such as Chávez room to use events in Honduras to push their vision for the region.
Zelaya is an unlikely hero for the left, coming from Honduras's wealthy classes and joining a leftist bloc of Latin American countries several years after he had been elected president. But his ouster has changed the dynamics.
"Zelaya didn't have a strong constituency," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a policy group. "And this has become a recruiting mechanism for Zelaya. It's the best thing that could have happened to Zelaya because it's allowed him to generate support."
Carlos Sosa, Honduras's ambassador to the OAS, said in a telephone interview that on Thursday he would likely join Zelaya on a flight that would leave from a U.S. airport -- he wouldn't say which one -- and land in Tegucigalpa. "Everyone wants to go," he said, noting that the secretary general of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, and other leaders would be on that flight.
Correspondent Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.