Honduran Leadership Stands Defiant

Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa at dawn on June 28 and ousted the president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup was mostly peaceful, though tanks and soldiers occupied streets in the Honduran capital.
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 3, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, July 2 -- Honduran leaders who supported the coup against President Manuel Zelaya maintained a defiant stance Thursday in the face of international pressure, as diplomats conceded that a quick, painless resolution to the regional crisis might not be possible.

Officials in the new Honduran government led by interim President Roberto Micheletti said that they were prepared to hunker down for weeks or months and that they could survive economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and even the condemnation of their closest ally, the United States, which has played an outsize role in the history of Honduras for a century.

Micheletti, however, said he was open to one compromise: moving presidential elections up from November to an earlier date in a bid to soften outside condemnation of the coup and keep Hondurans from turning toward violence.

"Since I have no desire to run for president myself, you can believe me when I say that what we want is a legal, orderly transfer of power," Micheletti told The Washington Post.

José Miguel Insulza, head of the Organization of American States, said he would fly to Honduras on Friday and insist on the return of Zelaya, who was seized by troops at dawn Sunday and flown to exile in Costa Rica.

The U.S. Embassy here is sheltering Zelaya's wife and teenage son.

The OAS on Wednesday said Honduras had 72 hours to agree to Zelaya's return or it would be suspended from the organization, an action that would turn the impoverished Central American nation into a diplomatic pariah in the hemisphere, triggering the loss not only of respectability but also access to funds and aid that keep it afloat.

"I will do everything I can. But I think it will be very hard to turn things around in a couple of days," the Associated Press quoted Insulza as saying at a summit of Caribbean leaders in Georgetown, Guyana. "We are not going to Honduras to negotiate. We are going to Honduras to ask them to change what they have been doing."

A few Honduran lawmakers have been trying to build a compromise that would allow Zelaya's return, but they appear to have made little progress. Lawmakers who privately say they opposed the coup have refused to say so in public for fear of reprisal.

Zelaya said he would return to Honduras as early as Sunday. In a news conference in Panama City, Zelaya said he had no fear of dying. He said he would visit the new president of El Salvador, Muricio Funes, on Friday.

But without a break in the diplomatic stalemate, the new Honduran government promised that he would be arrested, tried and probably sent to prison if he set foot in the country.

"They are going to see how polarized society is and how many people fear a return by Zelaya," said Lizzy Flores, a member of the Honduran Congress who supports the new government.

Doris Gutiérrez, a lawmaker who supports Zelaya, said that "at this moment, compromise seems very difficult" and that both sides are "like cement."

"There are people in Congress who are against the coup, but they remain in silence," she said. "The business sector has been strong, very strong, in supporting the coup. This could last for a long time, this polarization, and could lead, I fear, to a kind of civil war."

The U.S. Embassy has broken off all contact with the Micheletti government. U.S. representatives here had worked for months to broker a compromise between leftist Zelaya and his conservative critics, but officials say they did not know a coup was about to erupt, finding out only when the phone rang Sunday in the ambassador's residence.

Some Hondurans in the government suggest that one way to placate international condemnation and solve the crisis would be to move up the date of the presidential election from November to August. Zelaya was ousted because he was staging a referendum that could have allowed him to seek a second term in office.

"We've taken some actions to hit the pause button on assistance programs which we would be legally required to terminate" if the ouster is found to have been a military coup, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington.

"We would discourage any actions that would prove to be an obstacle to this process reaching its desired outcome," Kelly said.

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