Rival Honduran leaders in Costa Rica for talks

Both ousted President Manuel Zelaya and interim leader Roberto Micheletti sounded uncompromising notes at the start of official dialogue Thursday in San Jose.

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (r.) speaks to the media next to Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias after a preliminary meeting in San Jose Thursday.

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya arrived in Costa Rica, where negotiations start today, with a message to his rivals: he expects the interim government, which took over the country after a military coup June 28, to step down within 24 hours.

"My presence here is not a negotiation," Mr. Zelaya told reporters Wednesday night.

One day earlier, Roberto Micheletti, who was sworn in as provisional president of Honduras the day of Zelaya's ouster, stated bluntly: "We are open to dialogue as long as it does not involve the return of President Zelaya."

Not exactly words of compromise.

Yet today, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias will attempt to foster just that. And common ground will not be readily found. It is not just the finer points that are sticky.

Zelaya, who was arrested by his military and exiled to Costa Rica, has been backed by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and leaders across the globe, and demands no less than full reinstatement. Mr. Micheletti, meantime, says that Zelaya has broken the law and would be arrested immediately upon return.

What is clear is that one side, or both, must back down. And while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for the return of the "democratic constitutional order," no breakthrough will be hammered out without blemishing justice in Honduras. "In coming to some kind of compromise, all of them will have to turn a blind eye to the illegal things going on," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

A series of analysts have floated the following scenarios:

• Zelaya is allowed to serve out his term, which ends in January, provided that he guarantees he will not seek re-election (which he has already stated as his intention). In return, those who sent him into exile would receive amnesty for their actions.

• If Zelaya does return to the presidency, it could be mostly symbolic, says Christopher Sabatini, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly in New York. It could be as part of a coalition government, where power is shared and where more checks and balances are put on his administration. It could also include an ongoing diplomatic mission to oversee the political landscape in Honduras.

• One of the most likely scenarios is that elections, currently scheduled for November, are moved earlier, and so is the transition of power. Both sides have stated a willingness to accept this scenario, even though it remains unclear who would be considered the president until then.

• The Supreme Court has said Zelaya is wanted on 18 charges, including treason, but already hinted that he could receive amnesty. That amnesty could extend to the end of his term or even beyond. It might also include a formal recognition by the international community that Zelaya had broken the law prior to his ouster. "The de facto government could claim some sort of victory," says Mr. Sabatini. Many Hondurans have been frustrated by the fact that Zelaya was acting unconstitutionally and then was turned into a victim on the international stage, he says.

• Mediations could stall until new presidential elections are organized. Carlos Lopez, who Micheletti named as envoy to the United Nations, said Wednesday: "This isn't a situation that can be resolved in a blink of an eye." This could lead to more protests, which authorities want to avoid. At least one person was killed when shot in the head at the airport Sunday in Tegucigalpa, where supporters of Zelaya had gathered in anticipation of his return.

• Talks could also break down completely. Although President Arias has said he wants both sides to stay put until a resolution is met, Zelaya is calling Micheletti a "coup-monger" and "criminal." A breakdown could dangerously polarize the country. Zelaya could move closer into the arms of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, which could escalate rhetoric and stoke tensions further, while the de facto government could seek more support from allies such as a group of US Republican senators who criticized President Obama's administration for saying that Zelaya's ouster was "not legal."

The international community is anticipating an announcement today or tomorrow, but an eventual agreement could be much further away.

"My sense of it is that neither Zelaya nor Micheletti is wanting to agree to anything today," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, headquartered in New York. "They are both being fairly unyielding in their positions.... They will have to build a much broader negotiation agenda, where both feel they have gotten something out of it."

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