TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS, AND MEXICO CITY — The meeting, by all accounts, was tense and difficult. Whether it erupted in shouted insults remains a matter of dispute. On one issue, everyone agreed: Something must be done to ease the political crisis engulfing Honduras.
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens and the diplomat representing the Organization of American States, John Biehl, got an earful from Honduran business leaders and senior politicians. And they gave back some of what they got, according to several participants.
But two significant themes emerged from the secret session at Llorens' residence on Sunday, themes that have the potential to finally ease the deepening political crisis that has divided and isolated Honduras and vexed Washington and other regional powers:
Key backers of the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya three months ago have begun to temper their support for the de facto government they helped to install. And some even mention a concession until now taboo. They might agree to allow Zelaya to be reinstated and finish his term due to expire in January.
Whether a result of angst over the economic damage caused by international sanctions against Honduras, or more simply a product of exhaustion, these shifts were cemented when de facto President Roberto Micheletti on Sunday suspended civil liberties in a crackdown on opposition press and the public's right to congregate and move about freely. (Micheletti backed down 24 hours later amid cries of outrage from his closest allies.)
The businessmen and politicians who met with Llorens and Biehl spoke of an almost visceral fear of Zelaya and the ways he tried to change the country they had so long dominated, an unwanted push in their view toward socialism. The diplomats, according to participants, repeatedly reassured them that Zelaya's authority would be strictly limited if he is reinstated, under the terms of the so-called San Jose Accord, brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in July.
"If the accord in fact limits any abuse of power, or political persecution, upon Mr. Zelaya's reinstatement, [then] along those lines we can reach agreement," a former Honduran president who attended the meeting said Tuesday. He asked not to be identified because of the sensitivities of ongoing discussions.
"The international community [condemning the coup] has been unfair with us, but that pressure from the international community is what has pushed us to seek a solution," the former president added.
He echoed similar remarks from Adolfo Facusse, president of the National Industrial Assn., who told The Times a day earlier that the business elite would give "a green light" to putting Zelaya back in the presidential seat under guaranteed limitations on his powers. Facusse added Tuesday that Zelaya would be required to face prosecution on charges that Honduran courts have levied against him since he was deposed, and a multinational military force would be brought to Honduras to verify and enforce the agreement.
Micheletti and other backers of the coup, including military commanders, have said they support the Arias "process," meaning they supported negotiations, though, analysts say, largely as a way to run down the clock. The reinstatement of Zelaya was a nonstarter, they said repeatedly.
They counted on an election scheduled Nov. 29 to choose a new president and restore Honduras to the world's good graces. But increasingly Washington and other capitals announced they would not recognize a president elected under these circumstances. That message also seemed to be getting through to backers of the coup, participants in the meeting indicated. And Micheletti's suspension of civil liberties made some worry the elections might not take place at all.
"A space for dialogue has finally been opened," said a diplomat involved in the meeting. "Many of the businessmen were angry because they are called 'coup backers' and especially because of the U.S. visas being suspended, but they have understood that the international community is not backing down."
Llorens was reportedly in session again Tuesday with business leaders.
All previous efforts at mediating the crisis have failed thus far, largely because of intransigence on both sides. Zelaya, who is holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital, has said he accepts the San Jose Accord, though it remains to be seen whether he would agree to all the limitations that would be placed on him. And if fellow coup-plotters abandon Micheletti, he may dig his heels in deeper.
"To the extent Micheletti is more isolated, his dependence on the military is greater," said Victor Meza, the interior minister in Zelaya's government and another participant in the Sunday meeting with Llorens. "A deeper alliance with military hard-liners . . . is a major obstacle to dialogue and finding a negotiated solution."
The military man who led the coup weighed in Tuesday, encouraging segments of the Honduran population to engage in dialogue. "I see," said Gen. Romeo Vasquez, "we are rapidly approaching a solution."