Politics & Government

The return of Honduras's deposed president sputters

OCOTAL, Nicaragua — Admitting that his plans to march across Honduras' southern border and recapture the presidency have been frustrated, ousted leader Manuel Zelaya said Sunday he would continue to drum up international support and pressed the United States to take a stronger stand in the month-long political crisis.

``The coup leaders are making a mockery of the presidents of the Americas and I want to know how the presidents of the Americas will respond,'' he told a few dozens supporters as he sat on the hood of a car in this rural Nicaraguan border town.

He also called on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take a firm stand on the crisis that has both Zelaya and his rival, Roberto Micheletti, claiming to be the sole leader of the nation of 7.8 million. ``I want to know what the United States' real position 1/8is3/8 on this coup,'' he said.

The U.S. State Department is expecting Zelaya in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to continue searching for a negotiated solution to the crisis. On Sunday, however, Zelaya said he had never received a formal invitation and was not sure if he would travel.

The State Department is also under attack from Republican lawmakers. On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, met with officials in Honduras and said in a statement that ``the Honduran people were right to confront Zelaya as he usurped the law and gutted their constitution.''

The news comes as a few hundred Zelaya loyalists have answered his call to gather in northern Nicaragua in hopes of ushering him across the border. Several hundred more were trapped behind army barricades in the town of El Paraiso, Honduras, about seven miles from the Las Manos border crossing.

With a warrant out for his arrest, Zelaya had been hoping to march into Honduras protected by thousands of his followers. But extensive roadblocks and a daytime curfew along the frontier have kept those crowds from materializing.

On Sunday, Zelaya was holding a private meeting on a ranch on the outskirts of Ocotal and told his followers he would meet them later to discuss new strategies to cross the border. He said the news media would be excluded from the talks in order to keep the Micheletti government guessing.

While the border region remains tense, the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa was calm Sunday, eyewitnesses said. On Wednesday, one of the city's principal avenues had been shut down by tens of thousands of people in support of the new government, and a similar march took place on Friday in San Pedro Sula.

In his most recent televised speech, Micheletti on Friday railed against the ``media circus'' along the border and promised the Honduran people that Zelaya would be arrested if he crossed the frontier again. That message came after Zelaya led dozens of supporters and an equal number of journalists on a short, symbolic stroll across the border that culminated with his having his picture taken in front of a sign that said ``Welcome to Honduras.''

But three days on, some are wondering if that's as close as he'll get to the Honduran presidency.

Sitting near Ocotal's central park Sunday, a group of weary Zelaya supporters dried their shoes in the sun, after having made an overnight trek through the forest. Some grumbled that Zelaya had called them here, but then offered them little more than a concrete floor to sleep on.

``I don't want to be a pessimist, but I'm not sure what we are doing here,'' said Moses Rodrguez, 58, who traveled from Tegucigalpa. ``It only gets more difficult if the president leaves us here alone. There are a lot of people that made the trek that don't have any money.''

To complicate matters, the powerful teachers union, which has been key to bolstering the ranks of ongoing protesters, had committed to returning to class on Monday.

The Honduran standoff began June 28 when Zelaya was awakened at gunpoint by the army, rushed onto an airplane in his pajamas and sent into exile. His ouster came after he defied congress, the courts and the attorney general's office in calling for a national referendum that might have allowed him to redraft the constitution.

With just six months left in office, his foes said he was bent on extending term limits and holding onto power. Zelaya claims he simply wanted to give Hondurans a louder voice in government.

The Organization of American States and the United Nations have denounced the coup and asked for Zelaya's immediate return.

But Micheletti has said the only person he will hand power over to is the winner of regularly scheduled elections set for Nov. 29.

Wyss is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.

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