By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Former president Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras on Saturday after being exiled by the army two years ago in a coup, clearing the way for the nation to normalize relations with its neighbors in the Americas.
The Honduran army, acting on a court order with backing from Congress, whisked the left-leaning Zelaya out of the country in June 2009 after he pushed a referendum seen by the opposition as an attempt to extend his term as president.
Thousands cheering and waving flags greeted Zelaya as he stepped off the plane in Tegucigalpa in stifling heat. Zelaya, who the constitution bars from running for office again, had been living mostly in the Dominican Republic since his exile.
The expulsion of Zelaya in 2009 was condemned around the world as an anti-democratic flashback to the region's Cold War era past of dictators, coups and military rule.
Honduras was kicked out of the Organization of American States, or OAS, which groups democracies in the Americas. OAS members later cut off aid to the impoverished nation.
The coup plotters said Zelaya, a staunch ally of Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez, was a threat to democracy and quickly held elections after his ouster.
The new president, Porfirio Lobo, has been lobbying to repair ties with nations who opposed the coup, like Brazil, which offered its embassy in Tegucigalpa as a refuge to Zelaya when he briefly returned during the crisis.
Lobo's government is now recognized by the United States, the European Union and Central American countries but has not won entry back into the OAS. The organization will vote on allowing Honduras back into the fold next week.
Venezuela's Chavez teamed up with Colombia's conservative President Juan Manuel Santos to draft a plan to allow Honduras back into the OAS. [ID:nN22117095]
The agreement was conditioned on Zelaya's return home, free of the threat of imprisonment, and guarantees that his allies can participate in politics.
A former businessman who sports a cowboy hat and thick mustache, Zelaya moved to the left after he was elected in 2006. Some politicians and business elites feared he would drag Honduras, a strong U.S. ally, down Chavez's socialist path and decided to kick him out of office before that could happen.
Tensions still simmer in the country between the toppled leader's supporters and the Lobo administration. Zelaya's return could either calm or inflame those differences. Zelaya is due to meet Lobo later on Saturday.
"This is a country that's in deep trouble," said Michael Shifter at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
"The problems are certainly far from being resolved, but the government has made a good effort to try to deal with a difficult situation, and bringing it back into the OAS is maybe a way to help," he said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Leff and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Paul Simao)