Honduras braces for confrontation ahead of Zelaya's return

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya is set to arrive back in the country Sunday, a move some say could provoke violence.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Soldiers stood guard Saturday as supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya arrived after a march at Toncontin international airport in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Jose Luis Magana/AP
Ousted President Manuel Zelaya is expected to arrive in Honduras Sunday.

When an earthquake rocked this Central American nation a few weeks back, sections of a bridge called "Democracy" in the interior of the nation crumbled. For many, it was a foreshadowing of the political storm ahead in Honduras.

Since President Manuel Zelaya was jostled out of bed at gunpoint and exiled last Sunday, the capital here has been a stage for the surreal.

In the pink presidential palace, an interim government has set up shop, and a new man now declares himself the official head of state. From abroad, Mr. Zelaya, with virtually the support of the entire world behind him, says he is the president and is on his way home.

Both sides are using the defense of democracy to justify their actions, though both sides condemn the other for breaking the law. And the citizens of this banana and coffee-exporting nation are caught in limbo, fighting one another over who should rule, and bracing for the resolution of a narrative that many believed was only possible in the Latin America of times past.

Today, Zelaya says he will land in Tegucigalpa, possibly flanked by other regional leaders. His foes in the new government promise that he will be immediately put behind bars. And people here are concerned about an outbreak of political violence not seen since the Cold War clashes that rocked Central America in the 1980s.

"People are afraid. The immense majority of people don't want problems, they just want peace. But there is so much risk of violence when he comes," says Roger Marin, a columnist for the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo. "If he does not come today, he will come tomorrow. He is going to arrive. … That is the kind of man he is, stubborn."

Honduras expelled from the OAS

And Zelaya is buoyed by world support. On Saturday, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras. It had set a deadline last week to have Zelaya reinstated to power by Saturday but was rebuked by Honduras's interim government, headed by Roberto Micheletti.

Zelaya, who not only has the OAS on his side but leaders the world over, including the US ambassador in Honduras, who reportedly housed his family in the wake of his ouster, is an unlikely man for a world rally. The wealthy, mustachioed rancher won the presidency in 2005 as a centrist and then made a hard left turn, aligning with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, despite the misgiving of many of his countrymen.

Shadow of Chávez

In fact, it is the shadow of Mr. Chávez that scared so many here. Fear – real or perceived – of Venezuelan airplanes full of arms landing in the country, of guerillas coming from El Salvador and Nicaragua, and even the coming of communism is whispered about in any conversation with those who say Zelaya's ouster is justified.

And so, while the international community condemns a coup, many Hondurans say his ouster, although perhaps not entirely legal, was the better of two evils. After all, Zelaya was breaking the law by pushing for a nonbinding referendum to survey voters on their support to call a constituent assembly. Many say that was the first step toward dissolving term limits for presidents. "If he had not been kicked out, we would have had Al Capone as president indefinitely," says Jesus Simon, an engineer attending a recent protest march against Zelaya.

Many, such as Mr. Simon, have expressed frustration that the world seemed unaware of the threat to democracy before June 28. Not a few times has the name Richard Nixon been floated, as an example of a president who broke the law and faced impeachment. Here, Hondurans say, the level of institutional maturity does not allow for such recourse.

Was it even a coup?

Besides, Mr. Micheletti, in a half-empty presidential palace that he claims as his office despite the rebuff of the world, maintains Zelaya's ouster was not a coup, but was within the bounds of the law.

Zelaya clearly disagrees. On Saturday, he called upon his supporters to greet him at the airport for his return. "I ask all farmers, residents, Indians, young people, and all workers' groups, businessmen, and friends ... to accompany me on my return to Honduras," he said in a taped statement. "Do not bring weapons. Practice what I have always preached, which is nonviolence. Let them be the ones who use violence, weapons and repression."

Cardinal warns of a 'bloodbath'

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez appeared on state television imploring Zelaya to stay abroad. Daily protests have grown in size in the capital, and while most Hondurans say they want peace, tensions are running high. Leading to the presidential palace, fast-food chain restaurants have been shattered, their walls splashed with graffiti calling Micheletti a fascist and coup leader. "We think that a return to the country at the moment could provoke a bloodbath," Cardinal Rodriguez said.

For Mr. Marin, this crisis was bound to play out sooner or later, after years of tension formed by extreme poverty – more than 70 percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line – and a lack of political will to address real reform.

The climax could come at any minute. Resolution, however, is far away – a task that Marin says had been made harder because the world has already taken a stance without listening to both sides. "Everyone has their own agenda," he says. Venezuela: political alliances. Nicaragua: an ideological neighbor. The US: an attempt to say it no longer acts unilaterally in the region. "Honduras could be left to its own luck."

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