Ousted Honduran leader running out of options

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 4, 2009 

OCOTAL, Nicaragua — Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya Tuesday launched a new international drive to revive his flagging bid to return to power, but Hondurans who'd massed here in support began heading home.

Zelaya held talks in Mexico City for talks with President Felipe Calderon and planned to fly to Spain.

Meanwhile, in this Nicaraguan town about 10 miles from the Honduran border, where Zelaya had held rallies and launched an abortive attempt to march into Honduras, local authorities told Zelaya supporters to clear out of the municipal gymnasium, where they'd been sleeping in on the floor and on bleachers.

Zelaya and his senior advisers gave no indication whether they'd return or when.

Meanwhile, the de facto government in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, appears ready to tough it out, despite broad international pressure to allow Zelaya to return to the presidency.

"Zelaya is running out of options," said Mark Ruhl, a professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who's an expert on Honduras. "His chances to return look pretty poor right now."

Calderon expressed his solidarity with Zelaya during talks in Mexico City Tuesday, and he also condemned the June 28 coup that led to Honduras' de facto government.

Endorsements of this sort, however, have yet to move Honduras' de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, and the country's senior military leaders, who say that Zelaya repeatedly violated the constitution by trying to hold an illegal referendum that would open the way to his remaining in office.

Micheletti has also rejected a compromise plan offered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that would restore Zelaya for the final six months of his term but with limited powers. The Organization of American States' mediation efforts have also proven fruitless.

The Micheletti government has blocked Zelaya's efforts to force his way back into Honduras, and Zelaya's calls for a popular insurrection to toss out Micheletti have failed to materialize.

Zelaya supporters marched again in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday.

Micheletti, meanwhile, was devising a plan Tuesday to reactivate Honduras' economy during the next six months.

Zelaya had hoped to mobilize enough Hondurans in Ocotal to compel his return.

Ocotal offered both geographic and historic reasons for Zelaya to set up camp here. The city had served as a launching pad for Nicaragua's legendary guerrilla fighter Augusto Sandino in the 1920s and his political heirs, the Sandinistas, in the 1970s.

Some 3,000 Hondurans came to Ocotal and another border town, Las Manos, in the days after Zelaya was sent out of Honduras at gunpoint. Many arrived after an arduous trek over a mountain range to evade Honduran border authorities who answer to Micheletti.

By Monday night, many of the Hondurans had returned home.

"People have families waiting for them, they need to take care of their children," said Orlin Calin Guzman, who arrived two weeks ago from the Honduran town of Choluteca. "They feel impotent here."

Tito Cardona, a socialist writer from Honduras who's among the leaders of the Ocotal encampment, echoed others when he expressed hope that "blue helmets" from the United Nations and U.S. Marines would arrive this week to dislodge Micheletti.

No one outside encampment, however, thinks that either development could possibly happen.

The Hondurans have been spending their days and nights on the concrete bleachers and floor at a municipal gymnasium in the center of town.

However, the Hondurans had to load up their donated sleeping bags Monday night onto a flatbed truck and head to another shelter across town.

"There are fewer of them now, and we need the space for other activities," said Ocotal's vice mayor, Ignacia Elizabeth Matute, adding that the town's leaders remain committed to helping those whom she called "political exiles."

Olvan Ramirez, a 27-year-old security guard, was among those who vowed to stay in Ocotal as long as necessary.

"Mel," he said, referring to Zelaya by his nickname, "is a person who has supported the poor. He has given us fertilizers, food, clothing and medicine. He's like a brother and a father."

Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American expert at Florida International University, said Zelaya stands a better chance of returning by seeking the assistance of countries such as Mexico.

Gamarra noted that Zelaya initially seemed to take direction from his political patron, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in conjunction with Chavez's allies, including Nicaragua.

"Micheletti is never going to budge if it was just the Bolivarian nations," Gamarra said, referring to Chavez and his allies.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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