New Round of Honduras Talks

By Thelma Mejía

"Out with the Coup leaders."  Photo: Giorgio Trucchi, rel-UITA
"Out with the Coup leaders." Photo: Giorgio Trucchi, rel-UITA

HAVANA TIMES, Oct 29   (IPS)  – At the urging of a high-level U.S. government mission, the negotiating teams of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and de facto leader Roberto Micheletti restarted talks Thursday to find a solution to the four-month political crisis.

The U.S. delegation, headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, arrived in the Honduran capital Wednesday to push the two sides to reach an agreement to the crisis triggered by the Jun. 28 coup, when Zelaya was pulled out of bed at gunpoint and put on a plane to Costa Rica.

At a press conference in the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa Thursday, Shannon said he and the other delegates had come to “accompany” the talks as part of the United States’ commitment to democracy and to the Honduran people, and that they were not seeking to impose anything.

But he said “time is running out and we only have a month until the Nov. 29 elections,” and the United States and the international community believe an agreement is needed “as soon as possible.”

“In our view, an agreement within the national dialogue opens a large space for members of the international community to assist Honduras in this election process, to observe the elections and to have a process that is peaceful and which produces a leadership that is widely recognised throughout the hemisphere as legitimate,” Shannon said.

“This will be important as a way of creating a pathway for Honduras to reintegrate itself into the inter-American community,” he added.

The international community, including the U.S. government, has threatened not to recognize the outcome of the elections unless Zelaya is reinstated.

Shannon said his delegation, also made up of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly and senior White House adviser on Latin America Dan Restrepo, had come to “facilitate” a dialogue between Hondurans, and that it would respect the decision reached by the negotiators here.

US Diplomats See Agreement

The representatives of the Barack Obama administration met with Zelaya and Micheletti and other political and business leaders.

In the news briefing, the U.S. delegation insinuated that an agreement was ready, saying it was a question of political will, not of drawing up a document. They said they believed the negotiators would reach an agreement soon.

A week ago, the two sides declared that the OAS-sponsored talks had collapsed, over the issue of Zelaya’s reinstatement – the only aspect of a multi-point accord which the two teams had failed to agree on.

Zelaya’s negotiators accused the other team of using delaying tactics, in order to put off a solution until the late November elections.

The deposed president’s team had argued that Congress should decide on whether he was to be reinstated, while Micheletti’s delegates said the question was up to the Supreme Court, because it involved an interpretation of the constitution.

Proposal to Avoid Zelaya’s Return

The de facto regime’s negotiators once again proposed that both Micheletti and Zelaya step aside to allow a “third person” to be selected to head a coalition government until Jan. 27, 2010, when Zelaya’s term officially ends.

But Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy since sneaking back into the country on Sept. 21, rejected the proposal.

However, Organization of American States (OAS) special envoy John Biehl, from Chile, said surveys showed that a majority of Hondurans supported the “third person” option and a negotiated solution to the crisis.

Biehl’s remarks annoyed Zelaya, who vetoed his participation in the new round of talks.  He was replaced as facilitator of the negotiations by OAS political adviser Víctor Rico from Bolivia.

The talks had reached agreement on seven of the eight points included in the San José Accord set forth by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias in his attempt at brokering a solution in July.

For example, both sides have agreed to forego an amnesty for those involved in the coup and the events that preceded it; to create a truth commission and a commission to follow up on any final agreement; and to go ahead with the Nov. 29 general elections as scheduled. Zelaya also agreed not to seek a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution – the catalyst for the coup.

Asked whether the United States would press for Zelaya’s reinstatement, Shannon said that was something that “we are going to leave in the negotiators’ hands.”

Michelleti’s representative Vilma Morales said the question would be “decided by Congress, with the opinions of the judiciary and other relevant state bodies; the negotiators agreed on that last night.”

She said the resumption of the talks “demonstrates Hondurans’ commitment to the search for a solution to the crisis and for the return of peace and tranquility to Honduras,” and added that “we are ready to sign an agreement, to bring this dialogue to an end.”

Morales said “we are pleased to sit down again with our colleagues; today is a day of joy for Honduras because we will fix everything, and we have to look towards the future of the country, which is at the door that the Nov. 29 elections open up for us.”

Zelaya representative Rodil Rivera said “we are here on instructions from the legitimate constitutional president; we will sit down and proceed to sign the accords that we have reached.”

He said Congress would decide whether or not Zelaya is to be reinstated to complete his term, and added that “we have come with optimism and faith.”

Until Wednesday night, Zelaya’s delegation had refused to sit back down at the negotiating table unless the ousted leader was immediately reinstated.

Shannon’s presence is apparently aimed at pressing the two sides to be more flexible, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on the telephone on Friday with both Micheletti and Zelaya to reiterate Washington’s “interest” in seeing Honduras return to the international concert of nations, and to point out that there is “increasing frustration” over the situation.

In the meantime, preparations for the elections went ahead. At a ceremony, armed forces chief General Romeo Vásquez said “we are going to fulfill this mission (of supervising the elections) and we are ready to defend democracy.”

Micheletti, for his part, said that without democracy there could be no elections, and added that “this electoral process is special because it is marked by high internal expectations and conditioned by heavy international pressure, but we are going to hold elections because it is the will of the people.”

But in the press conference, Shannon said that although no one would deny Hondurans the right to select their leaders, “without a deal it will be difficult for the inter-American community to support the elections.”

On Thursday, police used tear gas and batons against Zelaya supporters as they marched towards the hotel where the talks were being held. Several demonstrators suffered light injuries.

The UNICEF (U.N. children’s fund) office in Honduras reported Wednesday that there were 79 documented cases of repressive actions that violated the rights of children and adolescents since the Jun. 28 coup.

The violations included murder, mistreatment, injuries caused by beatings and bullets, harassment, police and military persecution, illegal detention and the abusive use of force.

UNICEF also reported that 1,600 minors had died in the last four months as a result of the general deterioration of the economy and health care.

“The health system is on the verge of collapse, and there are difficulties in terms of payments and supplies,” said Sergio Guimarães, UNICEF representative in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.