By Mary Beth Sheridan and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Scrambling to hold on to his presidency, deposed Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya pleaded his case in the United States yesterday, winning a rare unanimous vote of support from the U.N. General Assembly but failing to get an audience with top Obama administration officials.
Zelaya also gained crucial support at the Organization of American States, whose members debated into the night on launching a diplomatic initiative to resolve the crisis. They were also considering calling on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank to cut off all loans to the Honduran government.
In New York, Zelaya told the General Assembly that Honduras was "reverting to the age of dictatorship. Repression has now been established in the country."
After the meeting, he vowed to return to Honduras on Thursday with a delegation of dignitaries, including the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador, the secretary general of the OAS and the president of the General Assembly.
Diplomats last night tried to persuade Zelaya not to make the trip. Some analysts worried that the crisis could be escalating.
"If he [Zelaya] goes back with no one laying the groundwork . . . it's going to be a huge clash," said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Carter Center's Americas program, who attended an urgent OAS general assembly last night on the matter.
Zelaya was detained by soldiers Sunday morning and expelled from the country. A close ally of populist President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Zelaya had clashed with the Honduran Congress, the military and the Supreme Court over his plans for a referendum that many alleged was an effort to change the constitution in order to gain another term as president.
The U.S. government continues to recognize Zelaya as president, rather than a replacement sworn in by the Honduran Congress, Roberto Micheletti. But the Obama administration did not grant Zelaya a high-level meeting at the White House or State Department.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton could not meet with Zelaya because she was away from work recuperating from a fractured elbow. "This is just something that came up today," he said of the Honduran's decision to fly to Washington.
But the low-key treatment of Zelaya appeared to reflect an effort by the Obama administration to preserve some room for diplomatic maneuver. The U.S. government is working with regional leaders to resolve the crisis, but it has outsize influence with the Honduran elite because of its close military ties and its economic clout.
Zelaya was expected to meet with the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., and the top Latin America official on the National Security Council, Dan Restrepo, during his stay in Washington.
If Zelaya felt slighted, he didn't show it. Asked about allegations from some leftist politicians that the United States favored the coup, he said: "I have listened to President Obama. It is not only that he condemns the event, but he has demanded the restoration of the president. I have also heard the ambassador of the U.S. in Tegucigalpa. He has taken the same position against the coup powers."
The U.N. General Assembly unanimously condemned the coup yesterday afternoon and demanded the "immediate and unconditional restoration of the legitimate and constitutional government" of Zelaya.
The action, while not legally binding, provided a show of unity at the United Nations in responding to an international crisis, bringing the United States together with stridently anti-American governments in Latin America such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Zelaya took to the General Assembly podium to condemn the coup as an act of "barbarity" by a "small group of usurpers."
In a lengthy address, he portrayed himself as a champion of the poor who had been brought down by a clique of conservative military and economic elites who resented his attempts to improve the living standards for impoverished Hondurans.
He denied allegations that he had prepared the referendum to pave the way for another run for president, saying he planned to step down after his mandate ends in January.
He added that the new government's allegation that he had engaged in wrongdoing was unfounded. "I have been accused of being a populist. I've been accused of being a communist," he said, but added that he had not had an opportunity to defend himself.
"Nobody has told me what my crime is, what my error is," he said.
Zelaya presented a detailed account of the army raid on his home, saying he had been rousted from his sleep by gunfire and confronted by soldiers as he sought to alert a local reporter and others on his cellphone.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.