Showdown looms in Honduras

Interim President Roberto Micheletti vows to have ousted President Manuel Zelaya arrested if he returns Thursday. Hondurans are concerned about foreign intervention.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
Soldiers stand guard on a corner near the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa, Wednesday. Honduras' interim president, Roberto Micheletti, warned that the only way ousted President Manuel Zelaya will return to office is through a foreign invasion but a potential showdown was postponed when Zelaya delayed his plans to return to Honduras.

International pressure on the coup leaders in Honduras could force them to accept leftist President Manuel Zelaya back into the country under a political arrangement in which he promises not to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling against changing the Constitution to allow him to run for another term.

Mr. Zelaya could resume power until elections at the end of the year and then go quietly back to the countryside, which he promised to do Tuesday in front of the United Nations.

But so far, newly appointed interim president, Roberto Micheletti, is having none of it. He warns that if Zelaya returns, he will be arrested.

Zelaya plans to come back this weekend in what could be a showdown, leading to speculation – and veiled threats – about how regional leaders, particularly Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, may intervene.

The stakes are high. Emilio Alvarez, Nicaragua's former minister of international relations, says political crises of this nature in Central America can only be resolved in one of two ways: an agreement is worked out between both sides, or a violent rupture.

In the case of Honduras, Mr. Alvarez says that an agreement has to be worked out, because "the other option would be Chávez invading by air, sea, and land from Nicaragua. And that can't happen – it would be worse than the coup itself."

Under-the-table talks?

Alvarez says he suspects some sort of agreement is already being worked out "under the table," in which Zelaya would be allowed to finish his term in exchange for a promise not to push for another stint. The veteran analyst explains that Honduras is "the most traditional country in Central America" and has a strong cultural aversion to change, especially along the leftist lines proposed by Zelaya.

He also says that Honduras does about 70 percent of its business with the United States. If the new government decides to dig in its heels, it could – in theory – survive, even if it becomes a pariah in Latin America. "The United States is not going to impose any economic blockade on Honduras," he says.

Chávez threatens action

Mr. Chávez, however, is already beating his chest. On Tuesday morning, before departing Nicaragua for Venezuela, he told the press he was sure Mr. Micheletti would be thrown in jail. Referring to the de facto government of Honduras, Chávez said "they have already imprisoned themselves by their own situation."

Chávez also called for a UN intervention in Honduras and said that he would like to accompany Zelaya upon his scheduled return to Tegucigalpa over the weekend, "but I shouldn't, because they say I was responsible" for Zelaya's push to reform the Constitution.

Chávez said if he were to accompany Zelaya, it could "provoke" a violent response, which he wants to avoid. Plus, he said, "there could be sharpshooters that take advantage of the moment to kill me."

Chávez warned that if the Honduran military or coup leaders respond aggressively or violently toward Zelaya's announced return, "we won't remain with our arms crossed."

"There is a red line, and if it is crossed, there is no return," Chávez said. "If there is aggression against the [Zelaya] delegation, it would open another door that I don't want to talk about."

"They are responsible for what could happen," Chávez said.

Some Hondurans protest Chávez 'bullying'

Those who are opposed to Zelaya say that, in many ways, they are more opposed to Chávez.

Protests in favor of the coup have condemned Chavez's bullying more than Zelaya's move to call a constituent assembly to possibly amend the Constitution and be able to run for reelection.

"They wanted to put communism here," says Ebin Guerrero, a taxi driver in Tegucigalpa. "Zelaya did not start out as a leftist, but he got brainwashed by Chávez."

Mr. Guerrero says that Honduras joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a regional leftist trade bloc, was the breaking point for him.

Concerns Chávez could spark more tension

Chávez has meddled in domestic politics across the region, becoming allies with left-leaning leaders. In some elections, conservative candidates have used Chávez as a figure to scare away voters.

Even some left-leaning candidates, such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador, have sought to distance themselves from Chávez leading up to voting day. But fear of Chávez has taken on a new meaning here in Honduras. "We know it was not just Zelaya leading the country, Chávez was here, too," says Guerrero.

He and others interviewed say that they worry that Chávez will provoke more tension in the country.

Already, ALBA has said it will not recognize Honduras under the new government, nor will it continues to sell oil at discounted prices.

But Michael Shifter, at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says that events in Honduras also present Chávez a perfect public relations opportunity.

"He can point to Honduras and say, 'the right wing is still alive and well,' " Mr. Shifter says. "In some ways, this is a gift for Chávez."

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