TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- An accidental betrayal by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have forced the ousted leader of this Central American nation to seek refuge in the Brazilian embassy here on Sept. 21 as world leaders gathered in New York for a United Nations General Assembly meeting.
When he was mysteriously spirited back into his country and appeared suddenly in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Manuel Zelaya had apparently planned to go to the U.N. Mission in Honduras.
"We're trying to find out exactly how he entered," said Orlin Cerrato, a Honduran National Police spokesman.
Today, there are two men in the capital insisting that they're the legitimate Honduran president, and the question remains how Zelaya got back in the country and ended up at the Brazilian embassy, from which he has tried to rouse his supporters to return him to power.
The answer appears to be that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — a U.S. critic and strong supporter of Zelaya — may have inadvertently sabotaged his ally's plan to seek refuge at the U.N. Mission.
"Chavez once again shot his mouth off," said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister and respected writer on the Latin American left.
Castaneda, speaking at the Nixon Center in Washington Wednesday, said that Zelaya apparently was on his way to the U.N. Mission in Tegucigalpa when Chavez took to the airwaves and urged Hondurans to greet their returning president.
After Chavez's broadcasts, Zelaya was unable to get there, and in the heat of the moment fled to the Brazilian embassy, Castaneda said.
Castaneda, who's no friend of Chavez, ended Mexico's decades-old foreign policy of not criticizing human rights abuses in Cuba and its financial patron, Venezuela. Castaneda is considered center-left and is one of the region's most prolific political scientists.
Castaneda cautioned that he was piecing together the information through numerous sources, but Latin American diplomats and Honduran politicians gave credence to Castaneda's view.
One bit of evidence comes from Jaime Rosenthal, an influential businessman and Zelaya supporter whom many in Honduras accuse of sneaking the ousted president back into the country.
Rosenthal told McClatchy that his son, Yani, a former minister of the presidency at the start of the Zelaya administration, received a call from the ousted leader on Sept. 21 saying he was at the U.N. Mission in Honduras. It's not clear whether Zelaya called while en route to the mission or was actually there.
Asked about Castaneda's version of events, a Brazilian diplomat told McClatchy that Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro, notified the Brazilian government just 15 minutes before Zelaya arrived at the embassy on Sept. 21.
This timeline is different from earlier declarations by Brazil that the government had learned an hour in advance, and supports the version of fast-moving events that Castaneda recounted.
"We don't know what happened before, and actually, we don't care," said the Brazilian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity from the capital city of Brasilia, because he wasn't authorized to discuss the events in Honduras.
The diplomat said that Brazil had no warning of Zelaya's return to Honduras three months after his June 28 ouster, in which he was unceremoniously flown out of the country and dumped in a Costa Rican airport wearing his pajamas.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington declined to comment on whether Chavez inadvertently spoiled Zelaya's homecoming plans.
Just how Zelaya arrived home is also of great interest. Published accounts in Honduras said a Central American diplomat with immunity brought him in. Another account said he was flown from El Salvador in the personal helicopter of Rosenthal, the influential supporter, businessman and media magnate.
"It's totally false," Rosenthal told McClatchy. "I don't have a helicopter."
Rosenthal, 73, and an MIT graduate, said he hasn't had a chopper since the one he owned crashed in 1997.
Asked why people might think that he'd assisted Zelaya's return, Rosenthal said, "I've given a lot of space to Zelaya in my newspaper (El Tiempo) and on Channel 11."
Upon Zelaya's ouster, amid a dispute over his effort to call a public referendum to seek re-election, Roberto Micheletti, the president of the Honduran Congress, was elected by his colleagues as the interim leader. Micheletti insists that both Zelaya's ouster and his ascension to power are legitimate.
The Obama administration has criticized Zelaya's ouster, but also his return.
Still, Zelaya's presence could still serve as the catalyst to resolve Honduras' three-month-old political crisis by pressuring for a solution.
"When Zelaya returned, it changed the political dynamic in the country," Victor Meza, who served as Zelaya's minister of internal security, told McClatchy.
A leading Honduran businessman has put forth a plan that calls for Zelaya to serve out the rest of his term with limited powers, and the Organization of American States and the Roman Catholic Church are serving as emissaries between Micheletti and Zelaya in an effort to break the stalemate.
(Hall reported from Washington, Bridges from Tegucigalpa.)
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