If the Latin American left knows anything, it's the value of political theater. When leftist, coup-ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya tried to return to his country on Sunday in a small Venezuelan jet, buzzing the Tegucigalpa airport before soldiers blocked the runway, many inside the Organization of American States and the Obama Administration considered it a reckless stunt that might hamper a negotiated solution to the crisis. But as it turns out, the aerial spectacle may have aided their cause: it finally coalesced hundreds of thousands of Zelaya supporters on the ground and helped prompt Honduran coup leaders, already facing international condemnation, to reconsider their hard-line stance against any brokered settlement.
No one seemed to know that better than Zelaya himself. After his aborted return, Zelaya who during the Sunday flight told reporters melodramatically that he felt "blessed with the blood of Christ" said, "I will return to Honduras, there is no doubt about that." And now, after his private discussion Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, his chances look better. Their meeting sent the strongest signal yet that the U.S. not only considers Zelaya to be Honduras' legitimate President, but that it's convinced that restoring him to office is crucial to safeguarding Latin America's fledgling sense of democracy even if Zelaya himself hasn't always been faithful to it.
After huddling with Zelaya, Clinton announced a new plan that reaches back to an old one: Costa Rican President Oscar Arias who during his first presidency won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping end Central America's rash of bloody civil wars will now mediate the Honduran standoff. Clinton, who said both Zelaya and provisional Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti had agreed to Arias' involvement, called on "all parties to refrain from acts of violence" on Sunday a teenaged Zelaya backer was shot dead by soldiers "and to seek a peaceful, constitutional and lasting solution." Zelaya and Micheletti say they'll meet together with Arias on Thursday in San Jose, Costa Rica.
One possible way out, diplomats close to the Honduran talks tell TIME, is to move up the nation's November presidential election and January inauguration. Zelaya could return to power, but only on the condition that he not try to alter the constitution, especially its ban on presidential re-election. The Honduran crisis was sparked when Zelaya made noises about giving presidents a second term a sign to many Hondurans that he wanted to take them down the path of his left-wing allies, like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who recently won a referendum that allows indefinite re-election. When Zelaya last month defied a Supreme Court ban against a nonbinding plebiscite he'd called on constitutional change, the army whisked him away in his pajamas and flew him to forced exile in Costa Rica.
Under this scenario, say the diplomats, Zelaya would be immune from prosecution when he's back in Honduras. Likewise Micheletti, who last week had insisted he that he would never negotiate Zelaya's return, and other Zelaya foes, including the military leaders who ousted the President, would not face trial for the coup. "It's designed to keep the potential for violence at a minimum when Zelaya is reinstated," says one diplomat in Washington, who asked not to be identified.
Handing Arias the mediator job takes a load of pressure off the Obama Administration. Since the coup, the White House has had to walk a fine line between cultivating a new, less interventionist image for the U.S. which has too often aided military coups in Latin America and "responding to the hemisphere's desire that it take a strong lead in defending democratic norms," says Vicki Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the independent Washington Office on Latin America. "There will have to be a negotiated settlement to this crisis, and while Latin America appreciates the U.S.'s new style of engagement, it's also still wary of Uncle Sam playing the heavyweight in these situations." That's especially true in Honduras, where the Reagan Administration backed a brutal right-wing campaign against leftists during the 1980s.
It also defers, at least unless the Arias negotiations break down, the question of whether the U.S. should squeeze the Micheletti regime by cutting off aid always a dicey prospect when a country as poor as Honduras is involved. Washington funnels about $50 million a year to Honduras in social and military assistance, much of which the State Department put on hold in response to the coup; and in 2005 it signed a five-year, $215 million development grant for the country. Because of the coup, the World Bank has already suspended $270 million in pending credit for Honduras as well as $80 million it had slated for 2010. The U.S. could also withhold trade, but that's harder to do since it entered into CAFTA, a free-trade pact with all of Central America.
Still, during his visit to Moscow Obama reiterated that "America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected President of Honduras." He added, "We do so not because we agree with" Zelaya's often anti-U.S. stances, but "because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not." Micheletti's Foreign Minister, Enrique Ortez, shot back, saying "I respect that little black guy, but he doesn't know where Tegucigalpa is." It appears, however, that Obama may well know enough to get Zelaya back to that capital.