Can Arias broker a deal on Honduras?

Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias will begin leading talks today between ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and the interim government.

One of the unexpected byproducts of the political crisis in Honduras has been the rare accord among leaders across the ideological spectrum.

But unanimous world condemnation of the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya put any future negotiations in a tough spot: who could actually remain an objective mediator?

Starting Thursday, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is going to try.

The Nobel Prize winner, who has dedicated 25 years to peace efforts in countries ripped by civil war along the Central American isthmus, will lead a series of dialogues with the two men claiming to be the president of Honduras: the ousted Mr. Zelaya, and Roberto Micheletti, who was sworn in as the new provisional president the same day Zelaya was kicked out. If anyone is poised to bridge positions that have been thus far intractable, many say it is Mr. Arias.

"He has done this before and he did it in a situation more complicated than this," says Constantino Urcuyo, a professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica. "He is clear in his role in this conflict. He knows he needs to be impartial."

Both sides dig in their heels

The crisis in Honduras ignited after the military arrested Zelaya last Sunday morning, on a warrant issued by the Supreme Court, for pushing forward with a constituent assembly that many say was aimed at unconstitutionally scrapping term limits for presidents. Zelaya was sent to Costa Rica, and has since traveled to the US, Nicaragua, and El Salvador shoring up support. Last weekend, the Organization of American States (OAS) unanimously voted to suspend Honduras from the regional body.

So far, both Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti, at least publicly, have dug in their heels: Zelaya has promised to return to power until his term ends in early 2010, while Micheletti says that, while open to dialogue, Zelaya's return is not on the negotiating table.

Arias confident, inspires confidence

"It will not be easy," Arias said at a press conference Wednesday. "Their positions are very distant. But I am confident we will arrive at a solution."

Arias was pegged for the role because he has the trust of both of the parties involved, says political analyst Eduardo Ulibarri, former editor of the Costa Rican daily La Nación.

"Though he's been a vocal advocate of Zelaya's return to power, his political ideologies are more aligned with the de facto government," Mr. Ulibarri says. "He also has the confidence of the United States, which was a very important factor in his selection as mediator."

In the 1980s, Arias negotiated peace agreements with the presidents of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, calling for a national reconciliation and a ban on the use of any of the states' territories for aggression against one another, which ultimately earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

A welcome opportunity

For Arias, who presides over one of the first countries in the world to dissolve its military forces, the offer to drive the peacemaking process is a welcome opportunity. "Costa Rica is happy to aid its brother-country Honduras to resolve this problem," he said. "The people of Honduras do not deserve to have more blood shed or innocent people dying in the streets of Tegucigalpa."

Zelaya had urged the US to take a strong stance in helping him resume power, but the US has seemed wary of doing so, possibly for not wishing to appear to pull strings in a region with a long history of US intervention.

The 'natural' choice

At a recent press briefing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Arias "the natural person to assume this role" because of his mediation experience. She also said the US would take a backseat. "I think it's fair to let the parties themselves – with President Arias's assistance – to sort out all of these issues. We hope at the end of this mediation there will be a return of democratic constitutional order that is agreed to by all concerned."

The leaders closely aligned with Zelaya, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, have also taken a backseat at this stage in the process. Mr. Chávez had previously said he would not accompany Zelaya on his attempt to return home – which was thwarted by the military on Sunday – because he is too polarizing.

For many Hondurans, stability and a return to normalcy are sought no matter what ensues or who mediates. "At this point, it doesn't matter to most Hondurans if Roberto Micheletti retains power or if Manuel Zelaya returns," says journalist Jessica Figueroa, who is covering the mediation process for the Honduran daily La Prensa. "What is most important – to the majority of Hondurans – is peace."

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