By Juan Forero and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, July 7 -- Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping resolve Central America's civil wars, will mediate the increasingly volatile confrontation between deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and the de facto government that ousted him, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in Washington on Tuesday after meeting with Zelaya.
Zelaya and the interim president here in the Honduran capital, Roberto Micheletti, have agreed to travel to Costa Rica and meet with Arias on Thursday, Arias said in a news conference in the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. "What is important is there is a willingness by both sides to sit down and negotiate," he said.
The anger and polarization in Honduras, though, foreshadow difficult talks between the two men, who have vowed to stand firm.
Speaking on Honduran radio from Washington, Zelaya said his reinstatement as president was "nonnegotiable." "What this is, is not a negotiation," he said. "This is the planning of the exit of the coup leaders."
The Obama administration's efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis came two days after Zelaya attempted to reclaim his presidency by flying into Honduras's main airport. Troops kept his small jet from landing, and soldiers fired on demonstrators, killing two men and increasing the pressure for a negotiated solution.
"I believe it is a better route for him to follow at this time than to attempt to return in the face of the implacable opposition of the de facto regime," Clinton told reporters at the State Department. "So, instead of another confrontation that might result in a loss of life, let's try the dialogue process and see where that leads."
Clinton called Arias "the natural person" to try to broker a solution.
The new route to defusing the crisis contrasts with the tough line proposed by Zelaya's close ally, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. After the June 28 coup, in which soldiers roused Zelaya from bed and put him on a plane out of the country, Chávez said he would "overthrow" the de facto government. On Sunday, he provided the plane in which Zelaya tried to return.
It was unclear how Chávez, a frequent critic of the United States, viewed Washington's advocacy of talks. On Sunday, he said on his weekly TV show in Venezuela that he was "sure" the United States had played a role in Zelaya's ouster, though he said he did not think President Obama was behind the plot. Under Zelaya, Honduras had joined a Chávez-led alliance that opposes the United States.
So far, U.S. officials have taken a nuanced approach to restoring Zelaya, consulting with allies in Latin America and voicing support for the Organization of American States, which unanimously voted to demand Zelaya's reinstatement. But Micheletti did not budge, even after the Washington-based organization suspended Honduras.
A senior Obama administration official said discussion then turned to finding a respected interlocutor. Arias's name came up, and on Tuesday morning, Clinton called the Costa Rican president and spoke to him about mediating. She then put forth the idea to Zelaya, who agreed and spoke with Arias by phone from the State Department to work out the logistics. In Honduras, Micheletti had already asked Arias on Monday to consider playing a role, the administration official said.
"The United States seized the opportunity to take away the whole Honduran crisis from the palpable influence of the South Americans, i.e., Chávez, Kirchner, Correa, and put it under regional arbitration," said Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, referring to the Venezuelan president and his allies in Argentina and Ecuador. "It's now less ideological."
Despite the breakthrough, the administration official said, U.S. policy calls for the de facto government to step aside. "Part of the restoration of the democratic order is for Zelaya to finish out his term," the official said.
Obama has voiced strong support for that outcome, despite Zelaya's criticism of U.S. policies, suggesting that the deposed leader's political views are irrelevant to the fact that he was removed from office in an undemocratic manner.
Washington "supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras," he said Tuesday in a speech in Moscow. "We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders."
The de facto government insists that the ouster was not a coup but a "constitutional substitution" designed to remove a leader it contends had grown dangerously authoritarian. But Micheletti, speaking to local radio Tuesday, appeared to have softened his position from Sunday, when he told foreign reporters, "No one here is going to pressure me."
On Tuesday, he said he would send a team of negotiators to Costa Rica. He reiterated that the meeting "doesn't mean that Zelaya will be allowed to return," but he also praised Arias, who has condemned the coup, as "a man with a lot of credibility in the world."
Kessler reported from Washington.