Time running out for Arias mediation in Honduras?

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The month-old mediation effort by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to resolve Honduras' political crisis is foundering under the near-universal opposition of Honduras' top leaders to permitting deposed President Manuel Zelaya to return to power.

Political, business, church and media leaders say they can't trust Zelaya to keep the commitments that would limit his authority under the Arias plan because, they say, Zelaya repeatedly violated the constitution in the days that led up to his June 28 ouster over a proposed public vote that they think was aimed at extending his stay in office.

They also say that Zelaya has proved himself untrustworthy by failing to submit a budget to Congress last year and by shifting left in the middle of his term and allying himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States, traditionally Honduras' most important political and economic ally.

These officials say they prefer that de facto President Roberto Micheletti — or perhaps another senior government official who'd replace him — lead the country through the regularly scheduled Nov. 29 presidential elections and let the newly elected president take over as scheduled Jan. 27.

Opposition to the Arias plan runs so deep that Honduras' decision-makers favor holding tight even in the face of international sanctions and threats that other countries won't recognize the presidential election result.

"The president put himself above the law," said Oswaldo Canales, who heads the 9,000-strong Evangelical Fraternity of Honduras, the country's biggest Protestant organization. "No one is above the law. He cannot return."

Zelaya's supporters scoff at the notion that he's untrustworthy and say those blocking his return are protecting powerful political and business interests. They say there's no evidence that Zelaya intended to benefit personally from the referendum.

Arias hasn't given up on his efforts, although swine flu has sidelined him for the past several days.

The team representing Honduras in the Arias negotiations remains active. It met Thursday in Washington with Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, to discuss rescheduling a trip to Honduras by foreign ministers and the OAS that the Micheletti government has delayed.

Powerful players in Honduras also would benefit from the Arias plan.

Honduras' military leaders, for example, favor an amnesty that Arias has proposed for all actions through the day Zelaya was forced from the country at gunpoint.

While many people say the military correctly carried out the Supreme Court's order to arrest Zelaya on charges of violating the constitution, they also say it went too far by forcing him from Honduras. Deputy federal prosecutor Roy Urtecho said his office was investigating whether the military leaders committed a crime.

Senior officials in Zelaya's Liberty Party who supported his ouster want to find a way to resolve the crisis before the election. Without a resolution, they fear divisions over what happened could send party candidate Elvir Santos to defeat.

The power struggle has disrupted commerce throughout Honduras and scared away tourists.

Most trade is flowing freely, however, after the country's Central American neighbors declined to impose an embargo. The Obama administration also has declined to take punitive measures against Honduras' economy.

Still, the opposition to a deal is intense, with news reporting slanted against Zelaya and virtually no public opinion leader voicing support.

"He'd breach the agreement, and nobody would stop him," said Adolfo Facusse, the president of the Honduran National Industrial Association.

That sentiment is based on the events leading to Zelaya's ouster, which began in March when Zelaya announced he wanted to consult the public on whether to rewrite the constitution to permit a president to succeed himself.

The move alarmed the country's elite because it resembled acts by Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa to extend their stays in office.

In time, Honduras' attorney general, Congress and Supreme Court ruled that the vote was illegal because the constitution contains an unusual clause mandating that any president who tries to extend his term must step down.

Zelaya ignored the opposition, and fired the armed forces commander June 24 after the commander questioned the legality of Zelaya's order to distribute the ballots despite the ruling that the referendum was illegal.

The next day, Zelaya led several thousand supporters to an air force base to seize the ballots, as troops stood by.

"If we didn't have any doubts about what was happening, that ended there," said Maria Eugenia Landa Molina, a Liberal Party member of Congress who once backed Zelaya but who now says he must never be allowed back into office.

Since his ouster, Zelaya has traveled to the U.S., El Salvador, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile to rally support to get the Micheletti government to bend. Each of those countries has voiced support for his return but stopped short of real action.

Zelaya said this week that the U.S. has such influence over Honduras' economy that Obama administration officials could put him back in power if they enacted tough economic measures. The administration has refused, however, to take anything more than symbolic measures and accused Zelaya of "provocative actions" that prompted his ouster.

Zelaya has tried to mobilize a popular uprising, but that movement seems to have little broad-based support, despite marches this week that attracted up to 10,000 people from throughout Honduras.

That makes the Arias plan the best hope for his return, though it's hard to find anyone among his opponents willing to contemplate his return. They're skeptical he'd follow the Arias dictate that he renounce efforts to change the constitution.

"I saw Zelaya change when he got too close to Chavez," said Marcia Villeda, another Liberal Party member of Congress who once supported Zelaya. "He fell in love with power and lost his perspective."

"Every day that passes, the chances for Zelaya's return dim," said Julio Raudales, a former senior government official. "Getting someone to replace Micheletti is much more likely than having Zelaya return under the Arias plan."


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