Zelaya's back in Honduras. Now what?

Some say President Manuel Zelaya's surprise return increases the prospects for violence. The interim government has imposed a 15-hour curfew.

Esteban Felix/AP
Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya (c.) waves to supporters from inside Brazil's embassy in Tegucigalpa on Monday. Zelaya said he returned to Honduras to reclaim his presidency, defying threats of arrest and summoning supporters.

Global condemnation. Millions of dollars of aid cut off. Revoked visas and calls of illegitimacy. None of this has made the interim government of Honduras, led by Roberto Micheletti, budge while the world has pleaded for the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

But today – three months after being deposed by the Honduran military – Mr. Zelaya sneaked into the country in a surprise dramatic return, and the stakes have never been higher for Mr. Micheletti.

Zelaya is now inside the Brazilian embassy calling for national dialogue to put an end to the worst political crisis in Central America in decades. It is still unclear what his intentions are, but his presence puts new pressure on Micheletti as presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 29 near.

Some say Zelaya's return increases the prospects for violence, as it gives his supporters a physical place to rally and, consequently, butt heads with authorities and Zelaya foes. But it could also bring a solution much closer after negotiation on virtually every other front – including a high-stakes bid at reconciliation by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias known as the San Jose Accord – has thus far failed. "It could force dialogue, and force the [interim] government into an agreement, including the San Jose agreement. Honduras could have no alternative but to accept it," says Juan Ramón Martínez, a political analyst in Honduras who is a strong critic of Zelaya. "We find ourselves with no way out. We are in a tie, and an exit is better than a tie."

Third time's a charm

Micheletti has long threatened to arrest Zelaya should he return, which Zelaya has attempted to do on two other occasions. On his first try, his plane was not permitted to land. On a second attempt, he merely crossed over the Honduran border by foot before returning to Nicaragua, where he has spent much of his exile. This time, at least for now, authorities won't be able to arrest Zelaya as long as he remains in the Brazilian embassy.

"The Honduran government has a problem on its hands now that he is back," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and now at the Brookings Institution. "In normal conditions, given the kind of thing [the interim government] has said all along, they'd just arrest him. But he is in an embassy. That option is closed."

Cornered in Brazil's embassy

At the same time, Zelaya has no mobility, since, if he steps out of the embassy to leave the country or do anything else, he presumably will be arrested. He was exiled June 28 after calling for a vote on a constituent assembly. The country's institutions and even members of his own party feared his ultimate goal was to scrap presidential term limits. He denies that.

His return could mean a show of force on the streets between protestors, as two men claim to be the president of a country with supporters rallying behind both. "In the short term it could provoke violence," says Mr. Martinez.

A 'now or never' gamble

Yet Zelaya may have gambled that this is his only option, a "now or never" moment as elections near.

"At this point, with [Zelaya's] return to Honduras, the dynamics of the situation have changed dramatically," says Mr. Casas-Zamora. "By the normal course of things, elections would have taken place, and I am pretty sure ... that they would have been accepted by the international community. Now that [scenario] is less clear."

Zelaya supporters say that they have now seized the initiative after months of being relatively powerless.

"But the pressure against the 'coup leaders' is going to be brutal. If there was pressure before, it's going to be that much worse now," says Omar Rivera, a member of Zelaya's former government. "Now we have two presidents in the country. It further undermines the legitimacy of the [Micheletti] government."

The denouement, however, does not seem close at hand.

Micheletti has ordered a 15-hour curfew, but it's unclear whether Zelaya's jubilant supporters will resist government forces' efforts to impose the curfew and whether that could lead to violent clashes.

It is also unclear which third parties participated in Zelaya's secret plan to return, though Brazil mostly certainly played a role.

As details emerge, the Micheletti government will no doubt weigh them in its response.

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