Honduran former President Manuel Zelaya speaks upon his arrival in Tegucigalpa… (Rodrigo Arangua, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Mexico City and San Salvador — Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras ousted in a military-led coup nearly two years ago, returned home from exile Saturday, greeted by a large, heated crowd and a nation still bitterly divided by tension and violence.
With Zelaya's return, Honduras hopes to end its political and diplomatic isolation and overcome one of the ugliest periods of recent Central American history. Zelaya pledged to immediately reengage in politics and will probably lead a new party.
"This is the moment to declare victory for the democratic process in Latin America," Zelaya proclaimed. "Honduras today is a showcase of whether peaceful agreements can work."
Though still reviled by the right-wing forces that ousted him, Zelaya was allowed to go home under a "reconciliation" agreement brokered by the ideologically opposed governments of Colombia and Venezuela. His return is a condition to reinstating Honduras to the Organization of American States, the regional body that jettisoned it as punishment for the June 28, 2009, coup.
Honduras has also moved to enact some of the very changes that, when proposed by Zelaya, so angered the business and political elites that they had him removed from office and tossed out of the country. That could open the way for reforms that lead to wider political participation in an impoverished nation where a tiny group has traditionally ruled, hand in hand, with the army.
At the same time, supporters of Zelaya say they've suffered attacks, imprisonment and even murder at the hands of pro-government forces in the 23 months since the coup, and they are demanding punishment for those responsible.
"Obviously, Honduran society after the coup was left exceedingly fractured and polarized," said Victor Meza, a veteran human rights expert who also served in Zelaya's government. "But this society has also shown itself able to demand greater levels of social and political inclusion."
Wearing his trademark white Stetson hat and flanked by family, Zelaya took to a stage before thousands of supporters. Minutes earlier, he had arrived at the Tegucigalpa airport aboard a Venezuelan government jet.
"Compatriots! Comrades!" Zelaya boomed to the crowd. "This ordeal … has not been in vain. Here we are, still standing, ready to fight."
Zelaya was a swashbuckling timber tycoon when he was elected president of Honduras in 2005. Once in office, his populist politics took a turn to the left as he cozied up to socialist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. When he began to propose reforming the constitution, a growing coterie of enemies suspected that he planned to make changes that would allow him to hold on to power indefinitely.
A simmering crisis came to a head in June 2009 when Zelaya insisted, against the instruction of Congress and the courts, on going ahead with a public vote to decide whether the constitution should be rewritten.
On the morning of the vote, the army swept into Zelaya's home before dawn, hauled him away in his pajamas and placed him on an airplane to Costa Rica. It was the first coup in Central America in 16 years — a brazen blow to the region's steady embrace of democratic rule that instead revived memories of an unstable past when army generals routinely ousted civilian leaders they disliked.
International condemnation was swift. Countries cut off aid or recalled their ambassadors. Zelaya's supporters protested regularly in noisy demonstrations, many of which were put down violently. Zelaya at one point managed to sneak back into the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, in September 2009. He remained holed up in the Brazilian Embassy for four months before agreeing to return to exile, this time in the Dominican Republic.
Although those who staged the coup had clearly gone beyond the bounds of legal propriety, earning worldwide scorn, Zelaya did not help his case with his often erratic behavior. U.S. officials who initially demanded his return to office grew cold in their support.
In the November following the coup, previously scheduled presidential elections were held, and Porfirio Lobo won. Washington, eager to move past the crisis, recognized the Lobo government, but most of Latin America did not.
Once Lobo was in office, the Honduran Congress voted to allow a referendum on whether and how the constitution might be reformed — nearly the same proposal that Zelaya had floated so disastrously.
And an internationally sanctioned truth commission was established to examine the coup and the events that led to it. Eventually criminal charges against Zelaya were dropped and arrest warrants canceled.
But violence and recrimination persisted.