Honduras hardliner Micheletti softens his stance

Interim Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti dramatically dialed back his tough rhetoric on Monday, one day after issuing a draconian decree to curb civil liberties.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Soldiers patrol near the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday.
Henry Romero/Reuters
Honduras' interim President Roberto Micheletti speaks to journalists during a news conference at the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa on Monday.

After dramatically hardening his stance by curbing civil liberties, deporting members of the Organization of American States (OAS), and issuing an ultimatum to Brazil, Honduran interim leader Roberto Micheletti just as dramatically backpedaled Monday.

The earlier moves came as ousted President Manuel Zelaya used his perch in the Brazilian embassy to call for mass protests that Mr. Micheletti claims threaten the stability of the tiny central American nation.

After all, thousands of Zelaya supporters had responded to his call for a "final offensive" against the interim government.

"Some radio stations, some television stations, were calling for violence, for guerrilla war, and that had us in the government super worried," Micheletti said in an attempt to justify his decision Monday to shut down two pro-Zelaya media outlets.

But he said he would reverse the moves to restrict free speech and the right to assemble, and asked the nation for forgiveness.

Micheletti also softened his tone on Brazil. Just days after he gave Brazil a ten-day ultimatum to decide what to do about Zelaya´s presence there – grant him asylum or hand him over to face arrest – Micheletti reportedly said that he wanted to give Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a "big hug" and pledged that he would not take over the embassy.

In addition, Micheletti said that he would allow the OAS back into the country for a fresh round of negotiations. And Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who oversaw Zelaya's ouster said that "all sectors of society should put aside their differences to unite the homeland."

The reversals reveal the most significant fissures to date within the top ranks of Micheletti's own constituency, many of whom are worried that a public backlash to his draconian measures could harm them in elections scheduled for next month.

"I do not think it is a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," says Christopher Sabatini, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly in New York. "There are two tensions pulling at Micheletti. His constituency of business leaders and politicians; the other is Micheletti himself who is clearly very stubborn."

'Facist' moves?

In a cellphone call to the United Nations from the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, Zelaya called the Micheletti administration a "fascist dictatorship that has repressed the Honduran people."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group compared Micheletti's moves to curb civil liberties to those other Latin American dictators past and present. "This kind of decree has been the norm for authoritarian rulers – from Chile's Pinochet to Cuba's Castros – who tolerate freedom of speech only when it favors the government," said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Stability at stake

Still, Micheletti's government continues to defend the moves as necessary to prevent Zelaya supporters from inciting violence. But the decree could undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections, scheduled for Nov. 29.

While many countries have said they will refuse to honor election results if held under Micheletti – Costa Rican President and top mediator in the Honduran crisis Oscar Arias again warned Tuesday that the international community would not recognize them – many within Honduras have long believed that fair elections could resolve the crisis. But if voters do not have the right to congregate, distribute information, and access to information through the media, the elections will have even less credibility in the eyes of the international community.

Mr. Sabatini says that Micheletti's support appears to have broken down even among his allies in Congress. The two presidential candidates, for example, have little to gain by not having the situation resolved. "The two candidates themselves do not want to look at the prospect of a pariah country," he says. "They need this resolved; the Micheletti government does not."

As for average Hondurans, they just want the crisis to be solved so they can get back to their daily lives.

Suyapa Lemus, a high school student from Honduras's second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, says she just wants this all to be over with and for presidential elections to come. "I don't support either of them," she says, referring to Zelaya and Micheletti. She also says that she's "relieved" that Micheletti is going to roll back the decree. "We need to be informed. How can we have elections without ... information?"

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