Zelaya may return to Honduras even if he faces arrest

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ousted President Manuel Zelaya's closest collaborators here are advising him to return to Honduras even if that means that the de facto government now in power will arrest him immediately.

They say that Zelaya's return would dramatically scramble the political landscape in this small Central American country, where Zelaya's replacement, President Roberto Micheletti, seems intent on withstanding widespread international pressure to step aside.

Driving the thinking of the Zelaya advisers is the Micheletti government's steadfast refusal to sign an agreement crafted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that would restore Zelaya to power for the remaining five months of his term with limited powers.

"I think Zelaya ought to go to San Jose 1/8Costa Rica3/8, sign the agreement and come to Honduras," Victor Meza, the senior official in Zelaya's cabinet as minister of internal security, said in an interview. "A majority of his ministers here have come to the same conclusion, that he needs to come here. He'd be taken out of prison on the shoulders of the people to the Casa Presidencial."

What's happening in Honduras has become a major international story because of the way that Zelaya was removed from office on June 28 - by gun-wielding soldiers at dawn - and because as president he veered left and embraced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce foe of the United States who wants his close ally to return to power.

Over Republicans' objections, the Obama administration has joined Venezuela and the rest of Latin America and Europe in calling for Micheletti to step aside in favor of Zelaya.

Following his collaborators' advice to return unilaterally would be a highly risky move for Zelaya but one that they say he would like to take.

"Zelaya is not built to live in exile," said Meza, who is in close phone contact with the deposed president. "He's like a fish out of water. He's convinced that he needs to return."

Topping the risks: Zelaya's personal security.

"Rightist elements want to kill him," said Carlos Montoya, who was a senior political adviser in his government. "It would be very dangerous."

It's also not clear whether a groundswell of popular support for Zelaya actually exists. His calls for a popular insurrection to topple Micheletti have gone unheeded, and pro-Zelaya protests have petered out.

Micheletti's advisers believe that most Hondurans side with them.

It may be also that most Hondurans simply want to get on with their lives and would castigate either side that prolongs a political crisis that has lasted for more than 45 days.

"What I want is to be able to work," said Reymundo Aguilar, a 40-year-old taxi driver. "The marchers in favor of Mel 1/8Zelaya3/8, they block the streets. So do the people in favor of peace 1/8Micheletti3/8. We're the ones who suffer the most, the poor."

Zelaya precipitated the crisis by insisting on having Hondurans vote on June 28 whether they wanted to create a special assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. Foremost among his objectives: to be allowed to seek re-election.

The Supreme Court, the Congress and the attorney general all said that the public consultation violated an unusual clause in Honduras' constitution that prohibits any attempt to permit re-election. The Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's arrest. The military didn't just arrest Zelaya at his Tegucigalpa home on June 28 but bundled him onto a plane to Nicaragua.

But whisking Zelaya out of the country prompted foreign governments to label the military's actions a coup and to refuse to recognize the Micheletti government.

Micheletti, who had been president of Congress, has countered that his government is led by civilians and is simply overseeing the transition to Honduras' next president, with elections scheduled to be held on Nov. 29.

Although foundering from Micheletti's opposition, the Arias Plan presents the only peaceful resolution to the power struggle. It would give amnesty to both sides for crimes associated with the coup.

It also calls for Zelaya to forgo holding the assembly to rewrite Honduras' constitution, to renounce any efforts to change the constitution to permit his re-election and to form a government of national reconciliation.

In return, Zelaya would become president again until his elected successor takes office on Jan. 27.

Honduras' foreign minister, Carlos Lopez Contreras, told McClatchy Newspapers that the Micheletti government accepts 85 percent of the Arias Plan.

"The sticking point for us is Zelaya's return," Lopez Contreras said, adding that Zelaya cannot be trusted to obey the Arias Plan's agreements and that his close ties to Hugo Chavez don't sit well in a country long allied with the United States.

Asked what the government would do if Zelaya simply showed up in Honduras, Lopez Contreras said: "We'd arrest him. He'd be submitted to the court."

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