Zelaya's Return Promises Violence and Turmoil

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Orlando Sierra / AFP / Getty

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya greets supporters at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa during a surprise return to the country almost three months after soldiers expelled him in a coup

After failing to return to Honduras by air two months ago, exiled President Manuel Zelaya got in underground on Sept. 21, popping up at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa after a clandestine trek over the border. His surprise appearance, impeccably timed to create buzz at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City this week — where Zelaya was scheduled to speak — made de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti and other leaders of the June 28 military coup that ousted Zelaya look like losers in a game of whack-a-mole.

But for all the audacity of Zelaya's gambit, it's still far from certain that he can win the larger contest: getting the coupsters to accept a negotiated settlement that would let him finish the four remaining months of his term. Calling himself "the President legitimately elected by the Honduran people," Zelaya said, "We're hoping Honduras now returns to calm."

Not likely. Latin America's notorious zero-sum, negotiation-averse politics seem to have rumbled into Honduras like an active volcano. If the two sides can't come to an agreement now, with Zelaya in plain view of his dangerously polarized friends and foes, Latin America watchers worry that worse violence could erupt in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. Clashes were already under way Tuesday between Zelaya supporters and soldiers and riot police swinging clubs and shooting tear gas. "Micheletti may actually be less likely to accept a settlement now, given what a bitter pill Zelaya's return is for him to swallow," says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society in New York and editor of the Americas Quarterly. "If so, both sides are probably en route to an institutional train wreck."

To those who support restoring Zelaya to power — and that includes every country in the world, including the U.S. — what's at stake is the integrity of Latin America's fledgling democratic traditions. The Micheletti regime and its handful of conservative Republican backers in the U.S. Congress, however, insist they're saving the hemisphere from the clutches of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his radical regional allies, including Zelaya. In the middle is Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias, whose San José Accord would reseat Zelaya with limited powers while granting the coup leaders amnesty.

Contrary to media reports on Monday that indicated Zelaya had reversed course and rejected the Arias pact, Zelaya's Ministers insist he's as ready as ever to sign it. "It's the coup leaders who are unwilling to do so and are just trying to run out time," Zelaya's ambassador to the U.S., Enrique Reina, told TIME from New York. "That's the reason he's in Honduras now — to be with the people there and move this process forward so we can sign San José immediately." Arias and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while not endorsing Zelaya's theatrics, agreed that "this is the best opportunity, now that Zelaya is back in the country," to ink the accord, said Arias. Clinton called the moment "opportune" to restore Zelaya and "get on with the election that is currently scheduled for November, have a peaceful transition of presidential authority and get Honduras back to constitutional and democratic rule."

Micheletti, who has set stern curfews and closed Honduras' airports and borders since Zelaya's reappearance, is still having none of it. He charges instead that Zelaya's return is designed simply to "put up obstacles" to the Nov. 29 presidential balloting, whose results the U.S. has threatened not to recognize if Zelaya is not restored to office by then. Micheletti — citing Zelaya's disregard for a Supreme Court order not to hold a constitutional-reform referendum this year that the coup leaders say provoked his removal by armed soldiers — instead called on Brazil to "respect the judicial order handed down against Mr. Zelaya and deliver him to the competent authorities of Honduras" for arrest. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim refused the request.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which this summer expelled Honduras in response to the coup, reiterated its support for Arias' efforts. But it's clear that Chávez and the Latin leftist bloc known as ALBA (the Spanish initialism for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, named after South American independence hero Simón Bolívar) have grown impatient with the U.S.- and OAS-led negotiation process. After Zelaya's ouster, ALBA crafted its own proclamation calling for his unconditional return and encouraging Hondurans to revolt against Micheletti. The Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS, Denis Moncada, went so far on Monday as to announce that Zelaya had dumped the San Jose Accord for the ALBA declaration, reporting that Zelaya had just said so "moments earlier" to leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

That turned out not to be true, but it reflected the wishes of the left, especially Nicaragua and Venezuela, which on Monday spoke against the San José Accord. It also echoed a personal friction between Ortega and Arias that dates back to the 1980s, during their first presidencies, when Arias helped broker peace settlements to end Central American civil wars like the one Ortega and his Sandinista Revolution were fighting against U.S.-backed contra rebels. Ortega made it clear soon after the Honduran coup that he felt it was the role of ALBA, not of the more conservative Arias, to broker a deal there. Ortega was also apparently miffed that the Honduran military decided to banish Zelaya to Costa Rica and immediately invited him to Nicaragua, where the Sandinista leader played a key role in getting Latin American countries to unanimously condemn the coup. When Zelaya attempted to fly back to Honduras in July, he rode in a Venezuelan government jet.

Although Sabatini believes the Micheletti government has blundered by not accepting the San José Accord — "They could have been done with him by now instead of turning him into a political martyr," he says — he feels ALBA's "bad-faith grandstanding" is hurting the pact's chances even more. But Reina and other ALBA representatives insist the onus is on Micheletti and the coup leaders, who "are always using President Chávez and ALBA as scapegoats for their illegal actions." Either way, the game Zelaya and his foes are playing now at the Brazilian embassy promises to get uglier — not just for Honduras but for the hemisphere.