Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a coup nearly three months ago, pulled a fast one on his enemies Monday, sneaking back into the country in an effort to reclaim his office and taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy.
“I am urging the people who participated in the coup: Together, we can attempt to open dialogue,” Zelaya said in one of a number of interviews he gave from inside the Brazilian mission in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
Journalists in the city confirmed seeing Zelaya in the embassy. Supporters rallied outside. The U.S. government and others urged all sides to remain calm and avoid violence.
The de facto government of Honduras has steadfastly ignored the international community’s demand that Zelaya be reinstated. It threatened to arrest him if he set foot on national territory. Interim President Roberto Micheletti, who replaced Zelaya after the June 28 coup, initially denied that Zelaya was back, calling such claims “terrorist propaganda.”
Later, he said that “a trial awaits” Zelaya and he called on the Brazilian Embassy to hand him over immediately. Micheletti’s government imposed a 4 p.m. curfew Monday, banning people from the streets of Tegucigalpa until 6 p.m. today, and closed the airport.
Zelaya, a timber magnate whose turn to the left unsettled Honduras’ traditional elite, refused to divulge details of how he got back into Honduras. He said he traveled 15 hours, hinted vaguely at help from the army’s rank-and-file and thanked the president of Brazil. There were also reports of help from groups in neighboring Central American nations.
“I entered Honduras evading thousands of obstacles,” he said.
He had made two previous attempts, including one spectacular operation in which the Honduran military planted vehicles along the runway at the Tegucigalpa airport, preventing his plane from landing. In the other, Zelaya briefly crossed over from Nicaragua.
“I am not afraid of justice; I’ve always said I’d submit myself to a fair trial,” Zelaya said. “My plan now is to initiate a dialogue for reconciliation and to restore democracy to Honduras.”
It was not clear how Zelaya expected to return to power from inside a foreign embassy. National elections are scheduled for November, which would have replaced Zelaya, since term limits barred him from running, but the U.S. and much of the rest of the world have said they will not recognize the vote if the crisis over the coup is not resolved first.
Some analysts suggested Zelaya’s return, on relatively neutral and safe grounds like an embassy, might facilitate a way out of the crisis.
“This might be the beginning of a peaceful deal,” said Leo Valladares, a Honduran law professor and former human rights ombudsman.
“President Zelaya can’t do it alone. He has to seek an integrated dialogue with all the components of Honduran society. This is the chance to begin a new dialogue and find a new social pact.”
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, one of the first officials to confirm Zelaya’s return, said in New York that he hoped a “rapid solution” was on the horizon. He said his government did not help Zelaya reenter Honduras.
Others, such as businessman Jorge Canahuati, who owns some of Honduras’ major newspapers and supported the coup, said he feared Zelaya’s return would bring turmoil.
“I have no doubt that this is going to unleash disturbances,” he said.
The army seized Zelaya at his home in late June and deported him to Costa Rica. Congress and the courts opposed Zelaya’s efforts to explore reforming the constitution to end term limits, alleging it was a power grab.
Washington, despite a long history of considerable influence in Honduras, has not been able to reverse the coup. The Obama administration cut off some aid and canceled the visas of top Hondurans who supported it.
But Zelaya’s fiery rhetoric and what is perceived as sometimes erratic behavior, as well as his close alliance with Venezuela’s anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, has made it tough for many in Washington to embrace him.
U.S. officials said they were concerned that Zelaya and his opponents had taken “maximalist” positions that could make a compromise difficult.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called on both sides to “exercise restraint and refrain from any kind of action that could . . . provoke violence.”
Vicki Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental group that focuses on democracy and human rights, said that although the de facto regime had been impervious to international pressure, Zelaya’s move throws down the gauntlet.
“Despite human rights concerns [of possible violence], this might just break the impasse,” she said.
Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.