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The Manuel Zelaya Show

Deposed leader Manuel Zelaya crosses briefly into Honduras. (AP Images)

July 25, 2009

Updated July 26 - Deposed Honduran President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya spent less than half an hour in Honduras Friday before returning across the border into Nicaragua. His move came on the heels of stalled negotiations mediated by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias. The aim of Zelaya’s brief Honduran stopover was to renew his bid to return to power. “It was a day of high theatrics staged, apparently, for multiple audiences, including the media abroad and Zelaya's increasingly dispirited followers at home,” reported The Los Angeles Times from the border area known as Las Manos. “He executed a symbolic gesture to make good on his promise to return.” The show continued on Saturday when Zelaya returned to the border area to set up camp and wait to see his family.

Meanwhile, the Honduran armed forces issued a communiqué backing negotiations carried out as part of the Arias proposal known as the San José Accord. The agreement would restore Zelaya to office, albeit with limited powers and a coalition government. In a new Americas Quarterly blog post, AS/COA's Christopher Sabatini analyzed what the military's decision means, given the interim government's refusal to accept the pact. "[B]y announcing its support and, in effect, contradicting the position of de facto President Micheletti, the military is again insinuating itself in politics and serving as a political broker," writes Sabatini. "It was dangerous and wrong when it did it on June 28, and it’s dangerous now."

Venezuela’s Telesur carried live coverage of Zelaya’s July 24 return (and CNN in turn carried that network’s feed). The overthrown leader wore his trademark white Stetson and spent much of the time surrounded by supporters while giving interviews and talking to his family via cell phone. The de facto government, in power since June 28 when Zelaya was forced at gunpoint into exile, said they would arrest him if he tried to enter the country. But after a brief encounter with an army lieutenant, Zelaya returned to his car, parked just across the border in Niacaragua.

Interim President Roberto Micheletti, who previously warned against the move, called the stunt “ill-conceived and silly.” The de facto Deputy Security Minister Mario Perdomo said Zelaya was not arrested because his entry was brief and just at the border. But, as COA's Eric Farnsworth told the Christian Science Monitor, interim leaders are likely weighing the possibility that detaining him would have the effect of "turning Zelaya into a martyr."

The latest events shone a light on the polarization in Honduras. Mel supporters flocked to the border, where a curfew has been imposed, to await his arrival, leading to clashes with military forces. On Saturday, a reported Zelaya follower was found dead in the border area. His body showed signs of torture. Thousands marched to show support for the Micheletti government in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-biggest city.

Whether Zelaya’s brief Honduran sojourn will produce results remains unclear, but it did little to win points with Washington. While in Iraq at a press conference with that country’s prime minister, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a question about the drama at the Honduras border. She called Zelaya’s attempt to return “reckless,” warning it could bring about violence, and urged both the deposed leader and the de facto government to accept Arias’ proposal. OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza also questioned the wisdom of Zelaya’s move. The State Department said Zelaya will travel to Washington on Tuesday for further negotiations. In the interim, A delegation of Republican lawmakers will spend the weekend in Honduras meeting with the de facto government. Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL) leads the delegation, which does not believe Zelaya's overthrow should be considered a coup.

Since Zelaya’s last theatrical return attempt—when he circled over Tegucigalpa on July 5 as the Honduran military prevented his plane from landing—Costa Rica’s president took over mediation efforts. But the opposing sides failed to compromise and sign either Arias’ first seven-point plan or the current San José Accord. The accord would restore Zelaya to power but prevent him from pursuing constitutional reform that could pave the way to presidential reelection. It was his attempt to hold a referendum on such a reform that was deemed unconstitutional, leading to the Zelaya ousting that governments worldwide have decried as a military coup.

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