In Mexico, ousted Honduran leader boosts bid to go home

Manuel Zelaya's visit with President Calderón could mark a new strategy to distance himself from his leftist ally, Hugo Chávez.

Henry Romero/REUTERS
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon shakes hands with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (l.) after a news conference at Mexico's presidential residence in Mexico City Tuesday. Zelaya is on a two-day official visit to Mexico.

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya began another wave of travel this week to shore up support for his return to Honduras, meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the presidential palace in Mexico City today.

And the Organization of American States (OAS) this week is planning a diplomatic mission aimed at persuading the Honduran interim government, which took over after Mr. Zelaya was arrested June 28, to accept a mediated solution to Central America's worst political crisis in decades.

But more than a month after Zelaya was deposed by the Honduran military – with international condemnation and millions withheld in aid failing to budge the interim government – hopes are not high that this new diplomatic front will change the political narrative.

Still, the visit today with Mexico's conservative president, and renewed diplomatic efforts, could mark a new strategy to distance Zelaya from his leftist ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and appeal to more right-leaning bases both in Honduras and beyond.

"Many conservatives, not just in Honduras, but conservative elements in the US [and elsewhere], fear that the return of Zelaya is the return of the project of Hugo Chávez, that everyone is doing the bidding of Hugo Chávez," says Christopher Sabatini, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly in New York. "If they can take that stain away that is in many ways their best bet."

At a ceremony in Mexico City, Zelaya, donning his trademark white cowboy hat, stood with President Calderón – both leaders reiterating their mutual support for the return of constitutional order to Honduras.

Zelaya was arrested on order by the Supreme Court after moving forward with plans to hold a nonbinding vote to consider constitutional change, a move that the Supreme Court had previously declared illegal and that was also rejected by the Honduran Congress. Many critics feared Zelaya was attempting to pave the way for his reelection, an intent that he denies.

Mexico's support for reinstatement

Calderón said Tuesday that Mexico has lent its support to Zelaya's reinstatement since the beginning, and "we are prepared to continue giving it more intensely …," he said.

The emphasis, Calderón says, is to accept the plan presented by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has been brokering talks in San Jose. The proposal presented by Mr. Arias, which includes the reinstatement of Zelaya with limited powers and early presidential elections, has been repeatedly rejected by the interim government over the issue of Zelaya's return.

Now a group of high-ranking diplomats, in a mission to be organized by the OAS, is preparing a trip to Honduras to convince the government, headed by Roberto Micheletti, to accept Zelaya home to complete his term.

"I hope Micheletti leaves this door open," Arias, a Nobel Peace laureate, said this week.

Last week, some in Mr. Micheletti's government had told reporters that the government might be willing to concede on this point, but they seem to have changed course.

Promises not to change Constitution

Zelaya has said he accepts the so-called San Jose accord and has promised if he returns that he will not try to change the Constitution.

Zelaya said that visiting Mexico – as well as a trip he says he is planning to Brazil by the end of the week – underlines international support against a coup.

He has also made about a half-dozen visits to Washington.

Zelaya has attempted to return to Honduras twice: one week after his ouster, when his mission was thwarted by the military, and more recently, he walked across the border from Nicaragua, where he has set up a base. He was not arrested by the military on charges including treason, as the interim government has threatened.

It is unclear that a new mission will have success. "It is going to depend on the personal diplomacy of the individuals on the mission," says Mr. Sabatini. "They are going to need to be able to convince someone [of Zelaya's return]."

During a first trip by the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, OAS secretary general, refused to meet with the Micheletti government so as not to legitimate it. But now it is clear that they must persuade Micheletti's government, which appears to be prepared to hunker down until presidential elections currently scheduled for Nov. 29, if mediation is going to succeed.

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