By Mary Beth Sheridan and Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has agreed to meet with ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, as U.S. and other diplomats intensify their efforts to solve a crisis that has turned into a showdown with coup leaders and threatens to produce more bloodshed.
The meeting could take place as early as today, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Zelaya told reporters he was flying to Washington last night from Central America.
The talks took on additional urgency after two Zelaya supporters were killed Sunday during a boisterous demonstration at the airport in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where the de facto government denied permission for Zelaya's plane to land. The plane circled the airport twice, then flew on to Nicaragua.
The Clinton meeting would mark the highest-level contact between Zelaya and the Obama administration since the June 28 coup, when the military detained the leftist leader and expelled him from the country. The Obama administration has condemned the coup. But until now, Clinton has worked behind the scenes, consulting with foreign ministers from Mexico and other countries as the U.S. government publicly coordinated its efforts through the Organization of American States (OAS).
The Honduran crisis has presented the biggest test yet of the Obama administration's Latin America policy, which seeks to establish more cooperative relations in a region where the United States wields enormous influence.
Peter Hakim, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said it was crucial for the U.S. government to show leadership in resolving the crisis.
"The worst thing is to create a long-term situation where you have an extraordinarily polarized politics, and a sort of residue of distrust, that prevents the holding of free, fair and credible elections come November," he said. A successor to Zelaya was scheduled to be chosen in a November vote.
The military forced Zelaya out after he defied Supreme Court orders and promoted a nonbinding referendum that many thought could lead to a constitutional change eliminating the one-term limit for presidents.
Senior U.S. officials declined to provide details on what Clinton's message to Zelaya would be, beyond emphasizing the need for democratic and constitutional order in Honduras.
Four witnesses said yesterday that Honduran troops fatally shot a protester, Isi Obed Murillo, 19, who was at the airport awaiting Zelaya's return Monday. Murillo's sister Rebeca said her brother was among a group that tore down a flimsy chain-link fence leading to the airstrip. As they did so, soldiers began firing their automatic rifles.
"He was too young, my brother. Why did they take his life? I cannot believe it," she said. The second protester who died was identified as Mario René Ramon Elvir, 39.
Stephen Ferry, an American photojournalist, said the troops had not been provoked. "There had been no rock-throwing at that point, and no one had attempted to enter the tarmac either," said Ferry, who was photographing the crowd when the gunshots rang out. He said one soldier methodically fired into the crowd, taking careful aim and shooting off one burst of automatic fire after another.
Honduras's de facto government intensified its efforts to reach a resolution to the crisis yesterday, forming a four-person commission to open negotiations with the OAS, according to a senior Honduran official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the commission was expected to hold talks with OAS officials and representatives of member countries.
The OAS suspended the Central American country early Sunday after giving it 72 hours to reinstate Zelaya.
The government of Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president, says that Zelaya's return is not negotiable and insists that his ouster was legal. His return to power is opposed by the military and the National Congress, while impoverished supporters of the populist leader have clamored for his reinstatement.
An unofficial Honduran delegation, including former president Ricardo Maduro and other former senior Honduran officials, arrived in Washington seeking to explain the ouster of Zelaya to U.S. lawmakers, officials and journalists.
"They come here because they feel that the multilateral organizations have not given Honduras a chance to express itself. There has been a blockage of communication with my country," said Roberto Flores-Bermúdez, Honduras's ambassador to Washington, who is helping the group.
But two sources in Honduras said the idea behind sending the team is to open a channel of communication between Micheletti and the Obama administration, which like other governments in the hemisphere has refused to recognize him.
Elan Reyes Pineda, who is president of the Honduras College of Journalists and is close to government officials, said the delegation has "official characteristics" because it is reporting back to Micheletti and testing the political winds in Washington for the de facto government.
"They're going to talk about why they went this route, what some call a coup and what others call a transition," Pineda said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she would meet with Maduro today and host a members' briefing with him Wednesday.