In Deeply Divided Honduran Society, a Potentially Combustible Situation

Honduras's poor generally support ousted president Manuel Zelaya, center, whom the country's small but influential establishment views with distrust.
Honduras's poor generally support ousted president Manuel Zelaya, center, whom the country's small but influential establishment views with distrust. (By Moises Castillo -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- To many poor Hondurans, deposed president Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was a trailblazing ally who scrapped school tuitions, raised the minimum wage and took on big business.

"He met with us -- the taxi drivers could go to the presidency and talk to him, the poor farmers, the women's groups," said Berta Cáceres, 38, an Indian rights activist who has been organizing pro-Zelaya rallies since his ouster last month. "The people liked him -- liked him because he said things they knew were true but that no other president had said before."

But among the country's small but influential establishment, what Zelaya did and said were cause for alarm. That sentiment fueled not just the military coup that removed the populist leader from power June 28 but also solidified the de facto government's now intractable stance against any effort to reinstate him.

"I don't want Mel Zelaya back in our country because of all the damage he did to our country," said Alan Licona, 42, an engineer who has rallied for the de facto government.

Licona said Zelaya had been taking Honduras on a socialist path similar to that of Venezuela, whose president is a close ally of Zelaya's.

"Honduras has lived in peace and democracy all these years," Licona said, "and we want to continue to live in peace and democracy."

The two diametrically opposed views underscore the deep divisions and simmering anger evident in Honduras, where those who support Zelaya are generally poor and those who oppose him tend to come from the middle and upper classes. That has created something of a powder keg here as Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, mediates talks between Zelaya and the de facto government.

The caretaker president, Roberto Micheletti, has said that November's presidential election could be moved up to defuse tensions but that his government considers Zelaya's ouster legal and non-negotiable.

Zelaya has said that if the de facto government does not agree to reinstate him at the next round of talks Saturday, he will resort to "other measures" to find his way back to power. In Guatemala on Tuesday, he called for "an insurrection," and diplomats say more violence of the type that has left at least one protester dead is possible.

"I see a society profoundly polarized and divided," José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said this month. "Without a doubt, there is a division. There is lots of tension."

Honduras is one of the poorest and most inequitable countries in Latin America. A 2008 U.N. report on poverty and social exclusion in Latin America said seven of 10 Hondurans were living in poverty, the highest poverty rate among 18 countries surveyed.

They are people like the family of Isi Obed Murillo, a 19-year-old Zelaya supporter shot and killed by soldiers at a raucous rally at the Tegucigalpa airport when the deposed president tried to return from Washington to regain power.

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