Zelaya can't return to office, Honduras leader says

Roberto Micheletti
Roberto Micheletti (Tyler Bridges / MCT)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras' interim president told McClatchy on Monday that he won't agree to any proposal to resolve his country's political crisis that would allow ousted President Manuel Zelaya to return to power.

Roberto Micheletti, who was named interim president after the military bundled Zelaya onto an airplane June 28 and sent him to Costa Rica, said that Zelaya would be jailed and tried on 18 charges of violating the constitution if he returned.

"The only way President Zelaya can return is if he submits himself to the justice system," Micheletti said.

In an exclusive 40-minute interview, Micheletti also accused the U.S. ambassador here, Hugo Llorens, of tilting unfairly in favor of Zelaya during the crisis, rejected accusations that his government has abused human rights in putting down protests and said that he doesn't expect the Obama administration to slap tough economic sanctions on Honduras.

Micheletti's comments confirmed analysts' assertions that he plans to withstand international pressure to allow Zelaya's return under a plan being negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. In doing so, his government and its supporters in the business community think they can ride out possible economic sanctions and a refusal by foreign governments to recognize the winners of the presidential and congressional elections Nov. 29.

Micheletti said that Zelaya couldn't be trusted because, Micheletti charged, he'd violated the constitution by attempting to hold a referendum with the aim of rewriting the constitution so that he could run for re-election. Under Arias' proposal, Zelaya would agree not to push for a change in re-election law in return for Micheletti's allowing him to return to office.

"He'd never keep his word," Micheletti said. "I know him. I helped him become president. He was a democrat. But he became a leftist with a plan to follow Ecuador and Venezuela. He wanted to become a dictator and emulate (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez."

What Zelaya hoped to gain from the referendum is a point of contention in Honduras. The proposed referendum question didn't mention the issue of re-election and asked only whether voters should decide Nov. 29 whether to call for a constituent assembly. Zelaya and his supporters claim that the referendum was nonbinding and that any change would have taken place after Zelaya had left office.

However, Micheletti said he believed that Zelaya intended to try to force a rewrite of the constitution before the election in an effort to remain in power. Chavez successfully pressed Venezuelan voters to allow him to run for re-election after they initially defeated such a measure.

Interviewed at his home on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Micheletti, a 66-year-old father of nine, was relaxed, a marked difference from when he met with foreign reporters shortly after the coup and refused to answer some questions and bristled at others.

Micheletti wore a square-tailed tropical shirt known as a guayabera and sat in his living room. His dog was given free rein to run about until the interview started.

As Micheletti spoke, pro-Zelaya protesters once again blocked key streets in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and teachers continued a strike that's kept the capital's public schools closed. There were no reports of violence.

Micheletti recalled that he'd spent 27 days in prison — "because I was a democrat" — after President Ramon Villeda Morales was deposed in a 1963 coup. Micheletti had been a member of Morales' presidential honor guard.

In the 1970s, Micheletti spent five years studying and working in Tampa, Fla., and New Orleans before returning to Honduras and helping to usher in a return to democratic rule as a member of Congress, where he served 29 years. He was the president of Congress when Zelaya was deposed.

One question Micheletti wouldn't answer: Was it illegal for the military to spirit Zelaya out of the country instead of simply arresting him, as the country's Supreme Court had ordered?

"I might have committed the same mistake to avoid a bigger confrontation, a lot of bloodshed," he said.

He defended police from allegations that they've beaten pro-Zelaya demonstrators. One demonstrator on Sunday showed a McClatchy reporter a bruise on his leg, where he said police had struck him with clubs.

Micheletti said soldiers and police officers simply had been trying to defend themselves.

Micheletti also said he hoped that Llorens, who left for the United States for vacation on Friday, wouldn't return. "He hasn't been fair," he said.

The State Department issued a statement of support for Llorens on Monday.

Micheletti said he doesn't expect the Obama administration to go beyond the light restrictions it's imposed on Honduras.

"Doing so would most hurt social programs for the poor," Micheletti said, adding that the United States has been "a longtime ally."

He said he'd happily retire from politics when he'd turn over power to his elected successor Jan. 27. He said he'd return to his hometown of El Progreso. There, he said, he owns a 185-acre cattle farm and is one of 60 partners in a bus company.

Edmundo Orellana, who's been a political ally of Micheletti's at times over the years but was Zelaya's defense minister, said he thought that Micheletti meant what he said about Zelaya's return.

"When he says he feels a certain way about something, you can bet that he won't be moved," Orellana said. "He's a good friend and a bad enemy."


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