Soldiers firing automatic rifles at the crowd of protesters, killing at least one person, was the bloody peak of a day that mixed the tragic with the surreal as ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya tried to make a glorious return to his homeland. Exactly a week after being flown out of the country at gunpoint, Zelaya called the bluff of the coup leaders and attempted to fly into Tegucigalpa in a small Venezuelan jet to the cheers of his followers. It could have been a spectacular homecoming for the history books. But after unleashing their M-16s on the protesters surrounding the airport, soldiers blocked the runway with troops and trucks. Zelaya's plane circled the airport at a perilously low height, then zoomed off to neighboring El Salvador, via a refueling stop in Nicaragua. And with Zelaya still in exile, the standoff over Honduras' disputed presidency goes on.
Sunday's melodrama followed a dangerous week of high-stakes poker between the Stetson-wearing leftist Zelaya and his silver-haired nemesis, Roberto Micheletti, Honduras' de facto President. Claiming that Zelaya had resigned, Micheletti was sworn into office hours after the elected President was flown to Costa Rica in his pajamas. Denying that he had stepped down, Zelaya said he would return to take power to which Micheletti promised he would be arrested for treason. The ousted President said he would return home anyway, along with several other Latin American Presidents who have condemned the coup. Micheletti retorted that their plane would not be allowed to land. And then in the final and fatal exchange, Zelaya sent his supporters in the capital to peacefully take over the airport, and brashly flew into Honduran airspace.
The tens of thousands of protesters began their trek in the morning in a carnival atmosphere of beating drums and Latin grooves blaring out of trucks' sound systems. Their hopes rose when police blocking their path gave way after negotiation, signaling the corps may have split loyalties. They surrounded the airport, whose interior was guarded by soldiers. But an hour before the plane was due to land, some protesters started breaking the airport fence, and the troops unleashed their gunfire onto the streets around the facility.
The automatic-rifle shots came before tear gas was used. Thousands scattered and ran; a few foolhardy protesters threw rocks back. A Pop Eye Chicken and Seafood restaurant had all its windows blown out, its customers sprinting away so fast that one woman left a shoe amid the shattered glass.
Adding to the drama, Zelaya gave a live interview with Latin American network Telesur as he flew over the scene, making comments that veered from the impassioned to the reckless. "What we see is a return of the right in Latin America a more reactionary right, more prone to killing, more fascist than in the past," he said of the shooting. "I'm doing everything I can. If I had a parachute, I would immediately jump out of this plane." Afterward, stranded in El Salvador, he promised to continue his struggle but did not reveal what his next move would be.
Micheletti, meanwhile, after bashing the international community last week for refusing to recognize his authority, took a slightly more conciliatory tone after the protests. While still refusing to reinstate Zelaya, he said he would be open to "good-faith negotiations" with the Organization of American States (OAS), which suspended Honduras on Saturday over the coup. "There are times for dialogue and times for negotiation," Micheletti told reporters at a news conference on Sunday. How readily the OAS will bargain with an administration that came to power via a coup, whose soldiers have now fired on unarmed demonstrators, remains to be seen.