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Path cleared for deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to return to power

Under the agreement, Zelaya would serve out the final few months of his term and both sides would recognize the results of a November election. The U.S. helped broker the deal.

October 31, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson and Paul Richter

MEXICO CITY AND WASHINGTON — In the end, it took direct, explicit U.S. pressure to force the de facto government of Honduras to reverse the position it had stubbornly clung to for nearly four months and agree to a deal that could reinstate deposed President Manuel Zelaya.

The agreement does not automatically put Zelaya back in office, and given the erratic and sometimes contradictory behavior of the principal players in the Honduran drama, no outcome is certain.

But both sides applauded the deal Friday and said it signaled a possible end to the crisis that has isolated and divided the impoverished Central American country since a military-backed coup ousted Zelaya on June 28.

Zelaya, a timber tycoon whose turn to the political left alienated Honduras' ultra-conservative elite, was ousted after ignoring a court order to stop efforts to revise the Honduran Constitution. His critics contended that he was attempting to extend his time in power, a charge he has denied.

The military grabbed him from his home at dawn and deported him to Costa Rica. He sneaked back into the country Sept. 21 and took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, where he has remained, the compound surrounded by Honduran troops.

Zelaya's removal from office has been viewed worldwide as one of the most serious challenges to face Latin America in a decade. The coup was both a throwback to the region's dark past of civil war and military takeover and emblematic of a struggle underway today in Central and South America, where several leftist leaders with authoritarian tendencies have risen to power through elections and tested the bounds of democracy.

The de facto government saw the agreement as the only way to ensure international recognition of elections scheduled for one month from now, officials said.

Leaders around the globe also voiced approval. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the "historic agreement" and said she was "very proud" that the U.S. was "instrumental in the process."

Under the agreement, the Honduran Congress, following a "consultation" with the Supreme Court, will vote on whether Zelaya should be reinstated, which would allow him to serve out the rest of his term, which ends in January.

The court and Congress previously endorsed the coup. Still, Zelaya expressed confidence Friday that Congress would vote in his favor, and his supporters poured into the streets in celebration.

Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president who replaced Zelaya, is making the opposite calculation and believes the Congress will decide against letting Zelaya return to office, said people close to Micheletti. He told a television interviewer Friday that "it is not a certainty" that Zelaya will be reinstated.

Pressure to end the crisis has mounted in recent weeks from several sources, including the powerful Honduran business elite, which backed the coup but has been losing millions of dollars because of sanctions and interrupted trade. Politicians involved in the elections scheduled for Nov. 29 also have been pushing for a resolution, and the Honduran people have grown weary of months of sometimes violent instability and repression of many civil rights.

Washington and most of the hemisphere's capitals had warned the de facto government that they would not recognize the results of the upcoming elections if the crisis continued to fester. That was the message that Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of State, drove home to the Hondurans during a two-day mission that ended late Thursday with the two sides reaching agreement.

Shannon told reporters that he had emphasized that time was running out, and that the two sides had realized "there was no more space to dither."

"Both have indicated that they will abide by it, and I believe them," he told reporters. "This is a political issue that's going to be resolved politically."

Members of Micheletti's team confirmed that it was the threat to the legitimacy of the elections that ultimately persuaded the de facto leader to agree.

"We thought that sooner or later, everyone would have to recognize the elections, even without the return of Zelaya, but we realized it was going to be a very painful, costly process," Martha Alvarado, deputy foreign minister and frequent spokesperson for the de facto government, said in a telephone interview from the capital, Tegucigalpa.

"There is no more bitter song than the nonrecognition of elections," she said, "and that was enough to really worry us."

Victor Meza, who was Zelaya's interior minister and led the team negotiating on his behalf, said the last-minute U.S. intervention was crucial.

"The arrival of Mr. Shannon was key," he said. "It made everyone return to the negotiating table. It reopened the dialogue."

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