The negotiations that were revived this week in the hope of resolving the Honduran coup crisis still haven't cracked the critical issue: whether ousted President Manuel Zelaya will be restored to office and allowed to finish the final three months of his term. The U.S., the Organization of American States (OAS) and every other nation in the world have condemned the June 28 military coup as antidemocratic and they've warned the installed President, Roberto Micheletti, that they won't recognize the results of Honduras' long-planned Nov. 29 presidential election if Zelaya isn't reinstated beforehand.
But there are growing signs that the U.S. may be willing to abandon that condition. A number of well-placed sources in Honduras and the U.S. tell TIME that officials in the State Department and the U.S.'s OAS delegation have informed them that the Obama Administration is mulling ways to legitimize the election should talks fail to restore Zelaya in time. "We're suddenly hearing from them that the one may no longer be a [precondition] for the other," says a Western diplomat in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where Zelaya is currently holed up in the Brazilian embassy.
Zelaya warned this week that legitimizing the election "without the reinstatement of the constitutional President would only legitimize" the coup. But U.S. officials, while insisting they've not given up on restoring Zelaya before Nov. 29, acknowledge they're considering a Plan B perhaps brokering more international oversight of the balloting while forging a deal that reinstates Zelaya after the election so that he can finish out his term, which ends on Jan. 27. "We've always preferred a restoration of constitutional and democratic order in Honduras that includes the restoration of Manuel Zelaya," one State official tells TIME. "But the elections are going to take place either way, and the international community needs to come to terms with that fact."
The official concedes that recognizing an election held while an illegitimate regime is in power is a "significant challenge." It may be even harder given recent actions by that regime: in the past three weeks, Micheletti has cracked down on civil rights, shuttered pro-Zelaya broadcasters and decreed that more media will be muzzled if they "transmit messages that incite national hate." Micheletti, a devout Roman Catholic who has said he's on a calling from God, lifted many of his emergency decrees during a visit last week by U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Micheletti supporter. But human-rights groups like Amnesty International say police and soldiers are still blocking street protests.
Micheletti insists Zelaya was overthrown because he defied a Supreme Court order against holding a referendum on constitutional reform that could have lifted Honduras' ban on presidential re-election. And he claims he's protecting Honduras from the sway of Zelaya's left-wing ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But critics say Micheletti is acting a lot like just the kind of authoritarian caudillo he accuses Chávez of being. Micheletti recently fired back at visiting OAS delegates that they and his other critics "don't know the whole truth, and at times it appears that you don't want to hear it." Neither Micheletti nor his spokespeople have answered queries from TIME.
The U.S. holds the most leverage over Micheletti and his partners in the Honduran military and business élite. Since the coup, the U.S. government has revoked their U.S.-entry visas as well as more than $30 million in aid for Honduras. Even so, many in the hemisphere have questioned Obama's wholehearted commitment to thwarting the coup and getting Zelaya reinstalled. A Latin-American diplomat close to the Zelaya-Micheletti talks says the acting leader's own aides showed him an e-mail last month from a high-level official in the U.S.'s OAS delegation concurring that Zelaya's return should not be a condition for approving the election. What's more, says the diplomat, the missive suggests that insisting on Zelaya's restoration has handed a victory to Chávez and other anti-U.S. leaders in the region.