Zelaya vows to return to 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)

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.”

A powerful voice against Zelaya came from the Roman Catholic Church. In a message broadcast simultaneously on all radio and television stations nationwide (and repeated several times through the day), Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga warned that Zelaya’s return now “could unleash a blood bath.”

Defending the coup, he criticized the OAS’ focus on the fact that Zelaya was democratically elected, and the organization’s view that the arrest and deportation by the military were therefore illegal -- rather than on Zelaya’s many alleged abuses of power since. “It’s useless to act late,” he said.

Honduras is a conservative, Catholic country, so Rodriguez Maradiaga’s words have weight. But it was an unusually political stance for a cardinal under the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who has urged his prelates not to get involved with such secular matters.

Aside from any violence, the return of Zelaya is problematic for other reasons. Nearly every institution in the country has lined up against him, and his ability to govern is vastly limited.

“He’s going to go to Congress and say, ‘Hello, boys, I forgive you’?” said Leo Valladares, a respected law professor who served as human rights ombudsman here for a decade. “He’s going to call back all his ministers in hiding? What does he say to the army?”

But stranger things have happened. The rumor mill is working in overdrive.

Earlier Saturday, many Hondurans were convinced that Zelaya was already in the country.

“Well, you know, he’s in Omoa,” said Raquel Ruiz, a 20-year-old salesclerk at a Tegucigalpa mall, referring to a state near the Guatemalan border. “My boss told me so. I’m not worried about problems because they’ll arrest him soon.”

Things were fairly normal at the mall, except for very long lines at banks and at the United Colors of Benetton store, which was running out of white shirts. White is the color of choice of the anti-Zelaya forces, who turn out in huge demonstrations around the presidential palace.

Some Hondurans seemed to have embraced their isolation. At one pro-Micheletti rally last week, demonstrators’ signs said: “Thanks, Taiwan!” -- an allusion to reports that it was the only government in the world to recognize the sitting administration in Honduras.