Deal may pave way for Zelaya's return as Honduran president

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009

Honduras's deeply fractured political forces signed an agreement Friday that could reinstate the president ousted in a coup four months ago and end a crisis whose impact has spread far beyond the poor banana-growing country, igniting partisan battles in Washington and threatening to polarize the hemisphere.

The accord was reached late Thursday with the assistance of a high-level U.S. diplomatic team sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The agreement calls for a national unity government to lead the Central American country through a previously scheduled presidential election on Nov. 29. But it transfers the most contentious issue to the Honduran National Congress -- whether to restore Manuel Zelaya as president.

If the deal succeeds, it could be a landmark advance for democracy in Latin America, sending a signal that coups will no longer be tolerated, analysts said. Honduras has come under extraordinary pressure in the hemisphere to reinstate Zelaya, with the United States and other countries slashing aid and threatening not to recognize the election.

However, some analysts questioned whether the crisis would indeed end if the Honduran Congress votes against reinstating Zelaya and allowing him to serve the remaining three months of his term. The legislature had stripped him of his title after he was expelled from the country.

"It's too soon to open the champagne and say, 'This accord is going to work,' " said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue. "There's still a lot of mistrust and bitterness on both sides."

The crisis began June 28, when soldiers carrying a secret arrest warrant from the Supreme Court rousted Zelaya from bed and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica. Zelaya had antagonized politicians, business leaders and the military because of his growing alliance with Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chávez. The charges against Zelaya focused on his efforts to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. Many thought that was part of a bid to stay in power beyond the four-year limit.

The crisis quickly took on larger significance, with many Latin Americans seeing it as a test of President Obama's commitment to democracy and to working with other countries in the hemisphere. In the U.S. Congress, heated battles have broken out in recent weeks over Honduras. A Republican senator critical of U.S. policy has held up two key diplomatic appointments for the region for months.

The breakthrough came after Clinton spent 40 minutes on the phone on Oct. 23 with Honduras's de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, persuading him to continue negotiations, which had broken down. Clinton then dispatched a team led by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr., officials said. The team sealed the deal.

The U.S. role "was important, fundamentally because the United States is by far the top trading partner of Honduras" and has military agreements, aid commitments and other ties, said José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States.

Shannon conceded, however, that much work remained to be done to ensure the agreement was successful.

In a conference call, he noted that the Honduran Congress would determine "when, if and how President Zelaya returns to office. That is the issue that is going to be the most provocative internally."

Zelaya exulted after the accord was reached, telling Radio Globo in Honduras that it "signifies my return to power in the coming days," the Associated Press reported.

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