How will the Honduras crisis play out?

Will interim Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti agree to talks with ousted President Manuel Zelaya? Or could violence force a change?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Soldiers keep guard outside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Wednesday, where ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has taken refuge after his return to the country on Monday.
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When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was arrested by the military June 28 and exiled from his country, numerous scenarios of what could possibly come next were floated.

The one least expected to take hold was that the crisis would drag on and on.

But that's exactly what it's done, floating on and off the world's radar for three months until it almost seemed that the interim government, which took power the day Mr. Zelaya was ousted, would remain at the helm until fresh elections scheduled for Nov. 29.

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But Zelaya's bold and risky return Monday to Tegucigalpa, where he remains holed up in the Brazilian Embassy, has injected uncertainty into the political situation and once again the world is wondering: what's next?

Here are a few possible scenarios of how Central America's worst crisis in decades could now play out:

• The interim government stalls and Zelaya remains stuck in the Brazilian Embassy for weeks

The interim government of Roberto Micheletti has so far bet on running out the clock until Nov. 29 elections. Even though Zelaya's presence in the country puts on the pressure, many say that the interim government could try to stall as long as possible. The interim president told Reuters that Brazil should grant Zelaya political asylum or hand him over to Honduran authorities. But as long as Zelaya remains inside the building, Micheletti says he will not attempt to seize Zelaya or lay siege to the embassy, even though they did cut off electricity, water, and phone lines in the area surrounding the embassy on Tuesday. "We will respect international and national law. If [Zelaya] wants to stay there for five to 10 years, we don't have any problem with him living there," Mr. Micheletti said.

That very well might be the case. Under international law, Honduras cannot storm the Brazilian Embassy, but if Zelaya steps outside, authorities say they will carry out their promise to arrest him. "My guess is that [Zelaya's] plan ended with where he is right now. I don't see his route out of the embassy," says John Carey, a political analyst on Latin America at Dartmouth College. "[The interim government] does not want to negotiate unless they have to."

• The two sides resume negotiations

This is what most of the world has been pushing.

Yesterday, Micheletti indicated that he was open to new rounds of negotiations, after talks led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in San Jose broke down this summer. "I'm ready to discuss how to resolve the political crisis under the framework provided to us by the Honduran Constitution and I'm ready to do so with Zelaya as long as he explicitly recognizes the constitutionally mandated presidential election," he said.

But so far, neither Micheletti nor the nation's institutions have indicated any willingness to allow Zelaya to return to power, a key demand in the Arias plan and one that the world community has thus far not been willing to negotiate on. It is also unclear who would lead talks. Mr. Arias told reporters he would be willing to try again if invited. Micheletti has rebuffed the Organization of American States, which immediately called Zelaya's ouster a coup and demanded his return.

Under international pressure, says Vicki Gass, a senior associate on rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America, Micheletti's resolve could buckle, and a scenario in which a power-sharing plan is agreed upon is not out of the question. "The most ideal scenario is that [the interim government] begins to feel the international pressure and realizes that results of the election will not be recognized and that their dragging this out is not helping anybody, or helping bring a resolution to the crisis," she says.

• Violence forces a change

If anything changes the balance in Honduras, it will be activism on the part of Zelaya's supporters. With the world already in Zelaya's corner on procedural issues and the question of democracy, Mr. Carey says Zelaya's presence in the country does not increase pressure diplomatically. "The interim government will feel more pressure because of what happens on the streets," he says. "They will not be under more pressure to negotiate because [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton tells them to negotiate."

How bad could it get? Already authorities have surrounded the Brazilian Embassy and clashed with Zelaya's supporters. Allegations of human rights abuses have grown, and are likely to grow again as long as a curfew is in place and Zelaya supporters are arrested for not abiding by the rules. Some fear that a standoff is inevitable, even though world leaders, from Brazil to the US, are pleading with both sides to remain level-headed. Brazil called an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to try and diffuse tensions. Could Zelaya supporters, demanding the return of their elected president, try to bring him back to office by force? "There will not be a 'coup within a coup,' " says Ms. Gass. It's an unlikely scenario because it's not just the executive branch that contends that Zelaya's removal from office was constitutional, but all branches of government.

Zelaya's surprise return causes international backlash

Buoyed by countries around the globe who say they will not recognize presidential elections in November unless they are held under Zelaya, the ousted president has shown no sign of relenting. If protesters turn violent, however, he could face criticism for risking the peace of the country for his own political gain.

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