Chasing Honduran presidents: a reporter's perspective

How do you talk to the 63 people blockaded in the Brazilian embassy? What kind of access is there to Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti?

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – The drive between the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa and the Brazilian embassy is only ten minutes. But it might as well take as long as it does to reach another country. After all, both house a man claiming to be president of Honduras.

This week, the Organization of American States (OAS) will try its hand at reconciling these two poles of power, in a standoff that has endured for over three months. Both sides have said dialogue is underway and that a peaceful solution is on the horizon.

The view on the ground tells another story.

I wanted a glimpse from both perches: the salmon-colored palace, where Roberto Micheletti calls himself the constitutional president of Honduras, and the Brazilian embassy, where Manuel Zelaya says he, the elected president of Honduras, must be allowed to return to his rightful office.

Entering the Brazilian embassy is impossible. Only those local reporters who shoved past the doors the day Mr. Zelaya sneaked back into the county have access.

Journalists who want to visit the embassy now are met by a wall of Honduran soldiers at every entry point, none of whom can or will budge. As a result, a local Burger King across from main military checkpoint in the neighborhood is now a de facto press room.

The beauty salon gambit

At one point I tried talk my way through the military blockade. I said that I was going to one of the beauty shops on the other side of the checkpoint. I really do need a haircut and would gladly have gotten a trim in Tegucigalpa. No go.

Entering the presidential palace is much smoother. The mere utter of “prensa” (press) gets you right through, even though Mr. Micheletti does not always seem to warm to the international press. He began a recent ceremony by yelling at correspondents who did not stand during the national anthem, and then went on a diatribe about cell phones after one, from our section, began to ring.

The presidential press room, which offers two ratty couches for scores of local journalists and those who have come from as far as China and Paris, buzzes all day. Reporters hopefully await visits by international delegations, the newly formed interim foreign cabinet, or impromptu press conferences given by the constitutional president himself.

In most ways, it feels like the inner-workings of any president's office. “There is more security,” explains Josue Garcia, a Honduran cameraman, who covers events here. “But in general it feels the same as when Zelaya was here.”

Sleeping on cardboard

Across town, with no hope of access to the other president, I head to Radio Globo, the controversial station that explicitly supports Zelaya and was closed down by government decree though spent the last week airing their programs via Internet.

The station has one reporter inside the Brazilian embassy. Luis Galdames has been inside since day one. We talk via cell phone.

The embassy has been his home for nearly two weeks, and it is not a pleasant one, he says. He says he's living there with 11 reporters, including Brazilians and Venezuelans, about 40 Zelaya supporters, and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Zelaya.

Most of Zelaya's sympathizers sleep on the floor on cardboard boxes. The fortunate ones, including Zelaya, have inflatable mattresses. “We barely sleep,” Mr. Galdames says. “Maybe four hours a night, there is so much tension.”

No one leaves. Those inside have reported being victim of toxic gasses. Human rights workers bring in food every day. The embassy guests shares three bathrooms (Zelaya and his wife are said to have their own). Zelaya's supporters have organized chores, so that one person does the gardening, one cleans the bathroom, on a rotating basis, Galdames says.

These conditions, he says, are not fit for any president, and of course are a world away from the pomp and ceremony that takes place on any given day at the presidential palace, where chandeliers hang, tables are covered in white and maroon linens and walls adorn with the paintings of the great leaders of Honduras. But he says Zelaya is in good spirits and his supporters are not going to relent. “We will stay here as long as it takes,” says Galdames.

Those against Zelaya say they will also do what it takes – to make sure he never steps foot in the presidential palace again.

Hondurans, accustomed to living peacefully with one another, suddenly look at each other as foreigners in an epic battle. And few believe – though they hope they are wrong – that the road to reconciliation between Micheletti and Zelaya is as short as the physical distance between palace and embassy.

What's next? Hondurans say that compromise must come from within. Read more here.

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