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Tensions mount as Honduras defies OAS

Honduras' new leadership ignores OAS deadline to restore Manuel Zelaya, and threatens to arrest him if he returns. The coup has brought deep divisions in Honduras to the fore.

July 04, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — When Bertha Oliva's husband was kidnapped by a death squad during the darkest chapter of Honduran history, she was three months pregnant. She never saw him again. Coming to her defense during that time 28 years ago was Ramon Custodio, a champion of leftists and militants persecuted by a brutal army.

The two worked together for years, founding one of the first independent human rights organizations in a country that has slowly shed military rule and attempted to move toward democracy.

Today, after a military coup that toppled the president, they find themselves bitter enemies on opposite sides of a very polarized Honduras.

Custodio, who is the national human rights ombudsman, came out in favor of the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Oliva supported many of Zelaya's policies and has condemned the coup.

"I am afraid of authoritarianism," Custodio, 79, said.

"This was not just a coup, but a blow to Honduran history and memory," said Oliva, who is 53.

That people who shared goals could have diametrical opposite viewpoints now illustrates how many Hondurans seem to be living in parallel universes. The two camps cannot even agree to call the coup a coup.

The politicians now sitting in the presidential palace argue that the soldiers who rousted Zelaya from his bedroom before dawn Sunday and deported him to Costa Rica were acting to save democracy, after, they allege, Zelaya's many abuses of power.

Honduran newspapers and television, most of which are controlled by a few big businessmen, give lavish coverage to demonstrations against Zelaya and in favor of the man Congress named to replace him, Roberto Micheletti.

Pro-Zelaya rallies get scant mention and the accounts usually focus on "vandalism" -- the painting of slogans.

The polarization raises the specter that Honduras will plunge back into violence and repression.

Despite some progress, Honduras has remained a country run largely by a small elite, where 70% of the population lives in poverty. (Zelaya, known for populist rhetoric and leftist alliances that made him a polarizing figure, is a wealthy rancher and timber tycoon.) Congress is controlled by two old-fashioned political parties, based more on tradition and family than ideology.

The divisions in Honduras complicate efforts to resolve the crisis. Zelaya was ousted after he defied the courts, Congress and the army and insisted on holding a referendum that many suspected he would use to end term limits and stay in power. The nonbinding referendum was to decide whether to hold a formal vote later on creating a Constituent Assembly.

Zelaya insists on returning to Honduras to serve the last six months of his term; Micheletti says Zelaya will be arrested if he does. With rare unanimity, the international community supports Zelaya and is threatening Honduras with sanctions.

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, flew here Friday to press for Zelaya's return, but was quickly rebuffed. The OAS had given Honduras a 72-hour deadline, expiring today, to reinstate Zelaya.

(Insulza's plane was met at the airport by a contingent of army troops after rumors circulated that he was bringing Zelaya. The troops were there to arrest Zelaya, Honduran news reports said.)

The Hondurans "made it clear they have no intention of reversing . . . this interruption of constitutional order," Insulza said in a news conference. He said the OAS would proceed to suspend Honduras, which would deepen its isolation.

Adolfo Facusse, one of Honduras' most powerful businessmen, said the OAS mission was a waste of time. He said Honduras should be proud of ousting a president who was aligning himself with the region's leftist leaders, such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.

"The Soviet Union collapsed and now the Union of Chavista [Chavez] Republics is beginning to collapse," said Facusse, a textile magnate. "Honduras can serve as the model for Nicaragua and Venezuela to get rid of their leaders."

Officials here emphasize that the state attorney's office has issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya, and that the soldiers who seize him would be acting on that order.

However, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, legal advisor to the army, acknowledged that removing Zelaya from the country violated the law, but said it was necessary.

"What was better, to take this man out of Honduras, or present him to judicial officials and then a mob would assault [the jail] and burn and destroy, and we'd have to shoot at them?" Bayardo told a Salvadoran news website, El Faro.

Although some representatives of the new government have put out feelers to diplomats in an effort to ease Honduras' isolation, there were also indications that many in the leadership were willing to dig in their heels and wait it out. Elections are due in six months, and the thinking is that Honduras would then, with a new set of rules, be absolved.

Zelaya opponents staged a huge demonstration Friday at the presidential palace to show support for Micheletti and his government. Dressed mostly in white, they chanted for peace and cheered the coup. One group of youths carried an effigy of Zelaya in prison stripes. A group of middle-aged women waved flags at soldiers guarding the march and cried, "Long live the army forces!"

Around the corner a smaller group protested against the coup. Security forces kept the groups from crossing paths.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.

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