By Jim Lobe*

HAVANA TIMES, July 6 (IPS) — After Sunday’s aborted effort by exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to return home, the week-old international crisis over the restoration of constitutional rule in the Central American country appears set to return to Washington.

While a high-powered unofficial delegation sympathetic to the de-facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti has begun lobbying diplomats posted to the Organization of American States (OAS) and members of the U.S. Congress, Zelaya himself is expected to arrive here Tuesday for talks with senior U.S. officials.

Zelaya, who announced from San Salvador Monday that he will try again this week to return to his homeland, is also expected to meet with top OAS officials, including Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza whose own efforts to negotiate a solution to the crisis in meetings with de-facto government Friday came to naught.

Insulza’s failure to persuade the Micheletti government to permit Zelaya to return as president led directly to the unanimous vote by the OAS Saturday evening to suspend Honduras’ membership in the hemispheric body, setting the stage for the confrontation at Tegucigalpa’s airport Sunday when the country’s military barricaded its runways to prevent Zelaya’s plane from landing.

As Zelaya’s plane veered off for Managua, thousands of his supporters who had gathered to welcome him at the airport clashed with soldiers. At least two protestors were reported killed and scores more injured in the violence, which State Department spokesman Ian Kelly blamed primarily on what the administration is now referring to as the “de-facto regime of Honduras”.

“We deplore the use of force against demonstrators,” he told reporters Monday, adding that Washington has formally decided to suspend all foreign assistance “that can be construed as aiding the [de facto] government” pursuant to a U.S. law that bans U.S. foreign aid to countries “whose elected head of government has been deposed by military coup or decree”.

The standoff is causing growing concern here both within the OAS, whose unity and determination to restore Zelaya to office has been surprising to some analysts, and within the administration of President Barack Obama.

U.S. officials had clearly been hoping that the de-facto government would permit Zelaya to return in exchange for his promise to drop any plans he had to amend the Honduran Constitution in order to permit him to run for re-election and an amnesty for the coup-makers.

Obama’s Intentions at Stake

While that outcome may still be possible to achieve, U.S. officials told the Washington Post this weekend that they had underestimated how polarized Honduras had become under Zelaya’s tenure.

The former rancher had moved closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, joined Chavez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americans (ALBA) political alliance, and adopted increasingly populist positions that, in the view of the business and military elites that have long dominated the country, were deeply threatening.

Among other issues, the administration is concerned that the unity shown by the OAS in response to the crisis to date has already begun to fray and may soon devolve into major differences, frustrating Obama’s efforts to bridge the hemisphere’s political divides that sharpened as a result of the mutual hostility between Chavez on the one hand and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

“I think now you’re going to see some real differences among the countries, and they will fall between Chavez and his allies and some of the more moderate governments in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. and Canada which aren’t going to push hard for Zelaya’s immediate return for fear that it will provoke further violence,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue (IAD).

“So then we’d be back to where we were during Bush, unable to find common ground on key issues,” Shifter told IPS, adding that Brazil, which the administration had been counting on to act as a bridge between the two camps, “has not really engaged on this issue yet”.

Indeed, the split was already evident during the OAS debate Saturday night, even though the body ended by adopting the final resolution unanimously. A senior administration official, who briefed the press Sunday on the condition he was not identified, noted that all of the OAS’s Caribbean members, as well as Costa Rica, and Canada, had “spoke(n) out in quite forceful fashion… about the wisdom of President Zelaya’s effort to return to Honduras.”

“So, in that regard, the United States was in a position to associate itself with a broad number of countries who were worried about the current situation in Honduras and intent on fashioning an engagement process that was going to ensure a peaceful resolution of this situation,” he added.

Indeed, U.S. officials are expected to advise Zelaya – as they reportedly did Sunday morning before boarding his plane for the aborted flight to Honduras – against a second attempt to return home this week in the absence of major progress toward a negotiated settlement.

Zelaya has himself pledged not to seek to prolong his tenure in office and to proceed with the scheduled elections in November and transfer power to his elected successor in January.

Kelly said Monday it will not meet with any delegation or official of the de-facto government.

At the same time, however, he was not asked about whether officials would meet with the “unofficial” delegation that reportedly includes two former presidents — Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse and Ricardo Maduro — former trade unionist Felicito Avila, and former Attorney General Leonidas Rosa Bautista, among others.

The delegation is expected to make the case that the arrest and exile of Zelaya should not be considered a coup d’etat and to resist pressure for his immediate return.

Facusse has reportedly warned that the de-facto government cannot survive economic isolation of the kind that it appears to be facing. While the humanitarian aid is exempt from the legal ban on U.S. aid, more than 100 million dollars in U.S. economic assistance appears to be indefinitely suspended, as have another 470 million dollars in loans and credits from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

In addition, Honduras’ Central American neighbors have temporarily closed their borders to trade, while Venezuela, which provided heavily subsidized oil shipments to the country under Zelaya, has suspended its deliveries.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.


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