Honduras' president hopes to heal the political wounds from the June 2009 coup, having signed a reconciliation accord that lets exiled leader Manuel Zelaya come home and emphasizes the right of Hondurans to call for a public vote on possible constitutional revisions _ the issue that led to Zelaya's ouster.
President Porfirio Lobo met with Zelaya on Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, to put their names on an agreement that is aimed at ending Honduras' political crisis and paving the way for the country to rejoin the Organization of American States. Both men smiled when they shook hands.
Lobo called the signing "a very important day for Honduras," saying the accord is "for the millions of Hondurans who choose to live in peace and harmony."
He also urged his countrymen to recognize that it will be good for the country for Zelaya to come home.
"Return to Honduras without any fear because you will be treated with the respect due a former president," Lobo told Zelaya.
Zelaya praised the accord, which was worked out by Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
"I am pleased to come to sign a reconciliation agreement for the democracy of the Honduran people ... Do not be afraid of democracy," Zelaya said.
Zelaya was toppled by Honduras' military after he defied a Supreme Court order to cancel a national referendum asking voters if Honduras should change its constitution. Opponents charged that Zelaya was trying to get around a constitutional provision limiting presidents to a single term. He denied that was he aim.
Now Lobo is backing the idea of Hondurans considering changes in the country's governmental system, something Zelaya argued is needed to improve the lives of the poor.
The Cartagena Accord reiterates that the Honduran constitution has a legal process for calling a national referendum on reforming fundamental laws. The accord also calls for no persecution of Zelaya and his supporters, the ex-leader's safe return to Honduras and a guarantee that Zelaya supporters be allowed to participate in Honduras' politics and its 2014 elections as a political party. It further provides for respect for human rights and an investigation of possible rights violations.
Santos, Colombia's president, said after the signing that the accord "strengthens the American system ... and there is peace and freedom in a brotherly country like Honduras."
Chavez, a strong supporter of Zelaya who was not able to be in Cartagena because of a knee injury, promised to ensure the deal's terms are respected.
"We will be monitoring very closely that the agreement is fulfilled because we know there will be forces inside and outside Honduras who are going to try to boycott the accord," the Venezuelan leader said.
A Honduran government statement said that with the accord, Lobo has fulfilled the electoral mandate given him to "achieve national reconciliation and unity."
Zelaya, who has been living in exile in the Dominican Republic, said last week that he plans to return to his homeland Saturday.
After he was hustled out of Honduras by the military almost two years ago, international sanctions and months of negotiations led by the U.S. and the OAS failed to persuade an interim government to restore Zelaya to power.
Honduras went ahead with November 2009 elections that had been scheduled before the coup and Lobo was voted into office. The U.S. and other countries restored diplomatic relations shortly after Lobo took office in January 2010.
But Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador stood by Zelaya. They opposed restoring Honduras to the OAS unless Zelaya could return from exile without facing the threat of prison.
Honduras' courts recently dropped corruption charges and arrest warrants pending against Zelaya, paving the way for the country's restoration as an OAS member.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza issued a statement saying the accord "opens the way to return Honduras to the hemispheric organization." He said the deal would be presented to the OAS's permanent council Monday.
Honduras' return to the OAS is expected to be made official during the organization's general assembly in El Salvador June 5-7.
Associated Press writer Pedro Mendoza in Cartagena, Colombia, contributed to this report.