Deal to restore ex-president languishes in Honduran Congress

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 4, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — A U.S.-mediated pact reached last week that aims to return deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to office and end the country's destabilizing political crisis is in danger of unraveling as Honduras' Congress takes its time to consider the deal.

Zelaya's supporters say that failure to approve it in the next few days would kill the final opportunity to legitimize this month's presidential elections by keeping a government in power that no foreign leaders have recognized. They warn there could be more of the street protests and repressive government countermoves that have sunk the country's economy.

However, Honduras' congressional leadership has postponed the crucial vote by asking the country's Supreme Court, attorney general and human rights ombudsman to give nonbinding opinions on the legality of Zelaya's return.

Congressman Antonio Rivera said Wednesday that the entities might need as long as two weeks to offer their views.

"There's no timetable in the agreement for when Congress has to vote," Rivera said by telephone from Tegucigalpa, the capital.

Zelaya's supporters fear that allies of interim President Roberto Micheletti and opponents of the former president are stalling as the Nov. 29 presidential and congressional elections approach.

"We need to restore Zelaya to office now to bring back peace and tranquillity to the country," Victor Meza, a key adviser to the ousted president, said by telephone from Tegucigalpa. "These delaying maneuvers by the president of Congress and Micheletti are deeply worrying."

Zelaya remains sheltered at the Brazilian Embassy, claiming to be Honduras' rightful president but unable to step outside without being arrested by government troops posted around-the-clock. The country remains polarized over whether he should be allowed to complete the final 85 days in his term.

Those who oppose Zelaya's return say they can't trust a man who allied with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and who they think precipitated his removal from office by the military June 28 by violating the country's constitution, said Daniel O'Connor, a spokesman for a group of powerful business and civic leaders.

"The general attitude here: We're in terrible shape, but it would be worse if Zelaya returns," said Adolfo Facusse, a leading businessman who's the president of the National Association of Honduran Industry. "People here see dealing with Zelaya as like dealing with the devil."

Analysts said the 128 members of the unicameral Congress were proceeding cautiously as they weighed how a vote rife with controversy would affect their re-election chances later this month, along with the campaigns of their parties' presidential candidates.

In sharp contrast, the Congress voted 122-6 to name Micheletti the country's new president only hours after the military whisked Zelaya out of the country in his pajamas.

Zelaya alienated one-time supporters in Congress by shifting left in the middle of his term to ally with Chavez, refusing to send the country's annual budget to Congress for approval and pushing for a public referendum on convening a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, which the Supreme Court deemed to be illegal.

What could tip the congressional vote on Zelaya is a decision by Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, the National Party's presidential candidate, or Elvin Santos, the Liberal Party's candidate. Of the members of Congress, 61 belong to the Liberal Party, 55 to the National Party and the remaining 12 to small parties.

Neither man has been willing to take a clear stand yet, however, for fear of alienating supporters.

Polls show Lobo with a 10 to 15 percent lead over Santos, who's suffering from the Liberal Party's split between Micheletti and Zelaya supporters. Both men stand to gain — and lose — from endorsing Zelaya's return, said Rolando Sierra, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

"Neither candidate is showing leadership," Sierra said. "The Honduran people want a solution to the crisis."

Besides the congressional vote, the deal calls for establishing a unity government, creating a committee to ensure that both sides follow the accord and respecting the election results.

A "no" vote by Congress poses grave risks for Honduras, where foreign visitors — except journalists — are staying away in droves and foreign trade has suffered.

Zelaya's supporters have promised to disrupt the elections if he doesn't return to office, and almost all foreign governments have said they won't recognize the winner of the presidential election unless Zelaya is allowed to finish serving his term.

Tom Shannon, the State Department's top Latin America diplomat, seemed to undercut that position Tuesday, however, when he told CNN en Espanol that last week's agreement between Zelaya and Micheletti meant that the Obama administration would recognize the winner, regardless of whether the Congress voted to restore Zelaya.

"Both leaders took a risk and put their trust in Congress, but at the end of the day the accord requires that both leaders accept its decision," Shannon said.

Zelaya's supporters contested that interpretation Wednesday and asked the State Department for a clarification.

The State Department reiterated the administration's demand that Honduras restore Zelaya to power.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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