In Honduras, signs of hope amid turmoil

A group of powerful Honduran businessmen have floated a compromise plan. Meanwhile, neighbors cope with the presence of ousted Honduran President Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy.

Henry Romero/REUTERS
Supporters of Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya take part in a protest on a road in Tegucigalpa Tuesday. Honduras' de facto government on Monday resisted pressure from opponents and the international community over ousted President Zelaya, who for a week has been holed up inside the Brazilian embassy seeking a return to power.

For the first time in a week, the toddlers are back.

The Macris Kindergarten, which sits on a normally tranquil hill of gated homes and palm-fringed sidewalks, has found itself in the unwelcome swirl of an international maelstrom since ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya sneaked back into the country last week and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, just a half a block away.

The school of 180 children ages 2 to 6 sits between the United Nations offices and the embassy – smack in the middle of spontaneous protests by supporters of Mr. Zelaya, melees with soldiers on guard, and concerns that authorities could invade the Brazilian complex any day.

"Parents called me so concerned," says Maritza Mejia, the director of the school. She immediately closed it down.

Today, they resumed classes and the patio is bustling with teachers welcoming children back with smiles. Almost all students showed up, Ms. Mejia says, even though attendance is still optional.

But it is only a small step toward normalcy in the midst of a neighborhood – and a country – paralyzed by political turmoil. Zelaya is on his 10th day in the Brazilian embassy, as the nation and the world scramble to find a solution to a crisis provoked on June 28 when the military arrested Zelaya and sent him out of Honduras. A new administration, led by conservative hard-liner Roberto Micheletti, took over hours later and has refused to allow Zelaya back as president, despite global condemnation of the ouster.

Hopeful signs?

Three months later, there are some hopeful signs that a resolution is on the horizon. A group of powerful businessmen have floated a compromise plan that includes the return of Zelaya to the presidency with strict limits on power, which Zelaya reportedly likes, while the Organization of American States is planning a fresh trip to the Central American nation. A delegation of Brazilian lawmakers is also reportedly scheduled to arrive in Honduras today.

As schools like the Macris Kindergarten and the residents of Palmira attempt to resume their normal lives, the signs of a country in crisis abound. Soldiers line all entrances to the embassy; their convoys rumble by. Traffic is clogged. The Burger King, which sits at the vehicular entrance of the Brazilian embassy, is full of local journalists, waiting day and night.

Hairdressers at a nearby salon have to wait to get authorization to get through a line of federal police outside. When they eventually get past, there are no clients, says stylist Walesca Rodriguez.

Mary Jimenez was attempting today to retrieve insurance papers for her hospitalized father, whose home sits beyond the guarded line. "This is unbelievable," she says, waiting impatiently.

Patience wears thin

For many in the neighborhood, patience is wearing thin. Palmira is in many ways an unlikely place for Zelaya's refuge, an upper-class neighborhood unaccustomed to the political chaos that has marked other parts of the capital.

"The tension reaches all of us," says Rony Valladares, a gardener of the local municipal park, where soldier barricades sit in view. He had to leave work early the day Zelaya returned because of fears of mass protests. "I just want them to reach a solution."

But even though many are eager for a political denouement, divides remain, in Palmira and beyond. Claudia Urbina, a vendor selling grilled buns stuffed with beans and cream, says she is frustrated. Business has dropped in half; she had to move her stand, normally at the corner where soldiers now patrol 24 hours, down the block. Still, Ms. Urbina says, she supports Zelaya's intentions. "He is the elected president of the country," she says.

Her boss, a homeowner in Palmira, disagrees vehemently, as he wires together the backyard gate which was torn down in recent protests, he says. "They are vandals, and the biggest criminal of them all is sitting in the embassy," says Luis, who only shared his first name. "I don't care if he languishes in there for a thousand years."

These are divides that Mejia, the school director, is trying to play down in the classroom, urging parents not to speak openly of their political opinions or allow children to watch violent images on television. "Even if they do not show it, children breathe it in," she says as 30 soldiers form a barricade on top of the hill overlooking her school. "We are trying to make them feel safe."

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