Honduras talks stall as mediators urge patience

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias says he is 'determined to have a resolution,' but that it may take some time.

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    Honduras' interim President Roberto Micheletti, left, speaks to the media as Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias looks on after a meeting in San Jose, Thursday, July 9, 2009. Talks to resolve the leadership crisis in Honduras finally got on track Thursday, with both sides showing up at the home of President Arias for closed-door meetings.
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First, the two leaders laying claim to the presidency of Honduras refused to meet in person during negotiations that kicked off yesterday in Costa Rica. Then, within 24 hours of arriving, they both took off – leaving delegations to try and sort through Honduras's worst political crisis in decades.

It has not been an auspicious start to mediation efforts.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has been attempting to find common ground between Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president who was arrested at gunpoint by the military June 28 and packed out of the country, and Roberto Micheletti, who was sworn in as provisional president hours later.

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But both men maintain they will only negotiate so long as the other backs down. And their intransigence means that the 12-day stalemate will likely deepen, leading to more incendiary rhetoric, tenser protests in Honduras, and dimming hopes that a solution is on the horizon.

"At this point, they are so polarized over one issue – whether Zelaya should return to presidency – that it's impossible to come to any agreement," says Antonio Barrios, international relations professor at the National University of Costa Rica.

Glimmers of hope?

Both Honduran and Costa Rican officials have said the talks, due to wrap up late Friday, have been "positive," but neither side appears to have given up any room over the past 48 hours.

Arturo Corrales, who is representing Mr. Micheletti in the dialogue, said frankly: "We are not going to negotiate. The constitution is not negotiable."

The other side took a similarly immovable stance. "We insist on the restoration of our constitutional president ... that is not debatable," said Patricia Rodas, lead diplomat for Zelaya.

"The truth is that there is still a lot of intransigence on both sides," Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said on a Chile radio station Friday. "I would have expected some kind of opening toward a solution in the conversations ... and that they would have left some pre-arranged framework before leaving, but it looks like that didn't happen."

Small peace march in Costa Rica

Reporters and cameramen have been camped outside President Oscar Arias's houses for two days now, crowding the security gates at the periodic updates of the negotiation process. Aside from two or three appearances by delegation members on Thursday, the doors of Arias's suburban home have remained closed. Demonstrators made a brief appearance on Thursday afternoon, some to show their solidarity with Zelaya and others came wearing white roses and calling for peace. "We are not here to support Zelaya or Micheletti," says Pablo Sala, who helped organize the march. "We are here to show our hope that peace remains in Central America.... In Costa Rica, peace has been a tradition and we hope we can help Honduras can share in the same tranquility."

Arias urges patience

Zelaya was ousted under a Supreme Court order by the military, after the courts, military, and many politicians feared he was trying to scrap term limits for presidents in calling for a national poll to gauge voter interest in a constituent assembly. He has denied that was his intention.

President Arias, a Nobel Peace prize winner, has urged patience. "I am determined to have a resolution, but this will take more time, I imagine," he said Friday.

"We should not be disheartened by the fact this wasn't solved in one round," says political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. "It will likely take several rounds, indicating that his last peace talks took several years. But because of the timing and because of the nature of the crisis – the dialogue does have a time limit. It can't go on forever."

Interim leaders increasingly marginalized

Zelaya has won support of nations around the world, including the US, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the interim government. The US this week announced it was suspending $16.5 million in military assistance programs. The OAS suspended Honduras's membership from the regional body last weekend. Venezuela has suspended oil shipments at preferential prices to Honduras.

Yet Micheletti has the support of Honduran institutions and the business elite in his country, as well as many in the middle and upper classes. Although Zelaya supporters have marched daily since his ouster, a CID-Gallup poll published Thursday showed that 41 percent of Hondurans found his ouster justifiable, compared to 28 percent who oppose the coup. [Editor's note: This polling data was published by the Honduran newspaper La Prensa. Afterward, we learned that CID-Gallup poll included other questions that gave a more nuanced view of public opinion. Click here for an explanation.]

Hugo Chávez: Zelaya will return

The international community could seek to isolate the interim government further in the face of stalled talks. "They could eventually try to wear down the Micheletti government," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, headquartered in New York. "If there is no progress made, the international community could try to put more muscle behind the rhetoric."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is already calling for that, declaring the talks "dead" on state television Friday. "Why isn't the government of the United States taking more measures, like withdrawing its ambassador?" Mr. Chavez said Friday. "They have only taken lukewarm actions."

He promised Zelaya will return, which could stoke concerns of street clashes in Honduras. "Zelaya will enter Honduras," said Mr. Chávez. "I don't know how, by land, air or sea, but he will return."

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