Unrest in Honduras

Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya march to the airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital, but his plane was blocked from landing there. His replacement, Roberto Micheletti, has promised to arrest him if he returns. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / July 4, 2009)

What happens when a government announces that it is withdrawing in protest from an international organization -- which doesn't recognize the government in the first place?

Are they in or out?

That is just one of the quandaries facing Honduras these days. Having ousted its president in a military coup and refusing the world's demand that he be reinstated, the tiny country is in legal limbo.

Deposed President Manuel Zelaya vows to return to Honduras today. The man who replaced him after the coup, Roberto Micheletti, promises to arrest Zelaya the minute he sets foot in the country.

The stage is set for a tumultuous clash.

While Honduras' de facto rulers are leading rallies at home, proclaiming the triumph of peace and democracy, their reputation abroad sinks lower. They rejected a personal appeal by the head of the Organization of American States to "reverse" the coup and reinstate Zelaya. The OAS said it would suspend Honduras from the body as punishment.

Honduras turned around and said, essentially, "You can't suspend us because we are quitting." But the OAS responded that an illegitimate government cannot remove a member nation.

There's also something topsy-turvy in seeing countries like Venezuela, which until recently viewed the OAS as a lapdog of imperialist U.S. governments, now joining forces with the organization to promote Zelaya's return. And in seeing Zelaya, a brash and increasingly authoritarian leader, becoming a symbol of democracy championed by the West.

"They wanted to damage Zelaya and his team," Bertha Oliva, a veteran human rights activist, said of the coup planners, "and ended up making them heroes."

Honduras, meanwhile, was bracing for Zelaya's return. Thousands of his supporters marched Saturday to the airport in anticipation. There had been rumors he would arrive Saturday, or that he was actually already in the country. A strong contingent of riot police in helmets and carrying shields blocked the main entrance to the airport.

Crowds filled the streets around the airport, chanting slogans against Micheletti and calling for Zelaya's return. A steel drum band played and a couple of tires were burned, mostly for the cameras.

"This is a response to that which we cannot call a government," proclaimed one of the organizers, Oscar Vargas. Despite the circumstances, he chatted amiably with the police and clasped hands and patted backs with the officer in charge.

Still, the prospect of Zelaya's return set the country on edge.

Zelaya said Saturday he is returning to Tegucigalpa's Toncontin Airport at midday Sunday with a delegation that will include the presidents of Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador. An emergency meeting of the OAS voted late Saturday to suspend Honduras, the first time a country has been booted from the organization since Cuba after the Castro-led revolution 50 years ago. However, Canada, Costa Rica and a number of other countries expressed reservations that it was not yet safe for Zelaya to return. It was unclear whether that would change his plans.

In a message he posted Saturday on YouTube, Zelaya said he wanted to go home to prevent a "criminal sect" from maintaining control of the country. He called on popular organizations, workers and others to receive him.

"We'll be free, or we'll be slaves forever," he said.

His supporters around the airport Saturday said they were worried.

"If they want a civil war," Juan Carlos Herrera, a high school teacher, said of Micheletti's government, "then go ahead and arrest him [Zelaya]."

Herrera's tiny, spirited 69-year-old mother, Maria Ricarda Espinoza, added, "People are ready to die."