Ousted Honduran leader is trapped with few options

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 5:08 PM

Where does Manuel Zelaya go now?

Congress slammed the door on restoring the ousted Honduran leader to power, ignoring intense international pressure to reverse Central America's first coup in 20 years.

He faces arrest if he leaves the Brazilian Embassy, where he stays up into the night talking on the phone, sleeps until noon and fires off letters to world leaders, urging them not to forget him. Seeking asylum would return him to the exile he faced when soldiers ejected him from the country in his pajamas.

He vows not to do that _ for now.

His other option is trying to negotiate a deal with President-elect Porfirio Lobo, who won Sunday's elections. Lobo appears to be in no hurry to deal with the sticky question of Zelaya's future.

"He doesn't want to start something that isn't a product of a national consensus, to avoid provoking further polarization," Vice President-elect Maria Antonieta de Bogran told The Associated Press. She said Lobo had not spoken to Zelaya since Sunday's election.

President Barack Obama's administration said Thursday there was no choice but to accept the congressional decision. Lawmakers had the last word under a U.S.-brokered accord to end the five-month crisis over the June 28 coup. The pact called for the creation of unity government until Zelaya's term ends Jan. 27, but left the decision of reinstating him up to Congress.

"We're disappointed by this decision since the United States had hoped that Congress would have approved his return," said Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

However, he said lawmakers voted Wednesday "in an open and transparent manner in accordance" with the agreement, which both Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti signed in October.

So for now, Zelaya is trapped in the embassy, where he and his wife sleep on inflatable mattresses and are increasingly alone. Hundreds of supporters followed him inside when he sneaked back into the country Sept. 21, vowing to stay with their leader until the Micheletti government fell. Slowly, most have left, including his son and a top adviser who finally went home this week.

Hundreds of soldiers and police still surround the embassy, waiting to arrest Zelaya if he steps foot outside and making threatening gestures when his supporters look out the window.

Zelaya faces abuse of power charges stemming from his defiance of a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on changing the constitution. Opponents claim Zelaya was trying to hang onto power by lifting a ban on presidential re-election, as his leftist ally Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela. Zelaya denies this, say he wanted to shake up a political system dominated by a few wealthy families that hold sway over political parties, the courts and the media.

The dispute prompted his June 28 ouster.

Aides say Zelaya will not leave the country, at least until his term runs out.

"His plan is to stay there, in the embassy. On Jan. 27, well, it's his personal decision," said Carlos Reina, the adviser who left the embassy this week.

That opens the door for negotiations with Lobo, the wealthy rancher who has inherited the pressure of resolving the crisis.

Washington has recognized his victory but stopped short of restoring development aid and anti-narcotics cooperation, insisting some sort of unity government must still be installed for the remainder of Zelaya's term. Most Latin American countries refused to recognize Lobo's incoming government because the elections took place with Zelaya out of power.

Lobo is unlikely to win back their support if Zelaya is thrown in jail.

The president-elect has given few clues about his intentions, promising only that he will start a national reconciliation process as president. His options may be limited. He cannot grant Zelaya amnesty from prosecution. That power belongs to the same Congress that voted 111-14 to keep Zelaya out of power, with many lawmakers loudly demanding the deposed leader be tried.

Still, some Honduran politicians say an informal deal allowing Zelaya to leave the embassy without fear of arrest is possible.

"While Zelaya is in the country there is always a possibility of some agreement that can allow him to stay," said Edmundo Orellano, who resigned as Zelaya's defense minister in the dispute over the constitution but also opposed his overthrow. "Nothing in politics is written in stone."


Associated Press Writer Juan Carlos Llorca contributed to this report.