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Can divisions over Manuel Zelaya in Honduras be healed?

Manuel Zelaya sings to his daughter Hortensia in the courtyard of the Brazilian embassy on 14 January J
Manuel Zelaya now appears resigned to his fate

The Central American nation of Honduras was thrown into turmoil last June when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and flown out of the country. His removal divided opinion in Honduras and internationally.

Now as the new President, Porfirio Lobo, takes office, Stephen Gibbs in Tegucigalpa looks at why the crisis erupted and whether the divisions can be healed.

Hortensia Zelaya, the 24-year-old daughter of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, was in her bathroom when she heard gunfire downstairs.

"Dad knocked on the door. He told me: 'Get dressed, it's a coup.'"

She had little idea what was going on. Her father, it seems, did.

"The soldiers were shouting, telling him to put his arms above his head. I heard him say, 'If the order is to shoot me, then just do it.' Then they took him away."

The army flew Mr Zelaya to Costa Rica. It was the culmination of a critical few weeks in this country's history.

Political crisis

Manuel Zelaya, the Stetson-wearing cattle rancher whose politics had taken an unexpected leftist turn while in office, was pitted against the country's key institutions.

CRISIS TIMELINE
Deposed Honduras President Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa (28 September 2009)
28 June: Zelaya forced out of country at gunpoint
5 July: Zelaya bid to return by plane fails after the Tegucigalpa runway blocked
25-26 July: Zelaya briefly crosses Nicaraguan-Honduran border
21 Sept: Zelaya appears in Brazil's embassy in Tegulcigalpa
Oct-Nov: Repeated talks fail on reinstating Mr Zelaya
29 Nov: Presidential election held as scheduled, Porfirio Lobo wins
13 Jan: Lobo and Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez sign agreement to give Mr Zelaya safe passage there
26 Jan: Court clears military of wrongdoing in ousting Zelaya; Congress approves amnesty for all involved in crisis
27 Jan: Lobo inaugurated

He was attempting to carry out a national, non-binding consultation. The ballot was meant to establish if people were in favour of setting up an assembly, which would then look into altering some parts of the constitution.

For some this set off alarm bells. They suspected Mr Zelaya really wanted to extend his presidential term, perhaps indefinitely.

Their fears were heightened when Mr Zelaya's determination to carry out the vote seemed to border on the reckless. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that what he was doing was illegal and opposition from the Congress and the army, he sent a crowd of his supporters to begin the process of distributing ballot papers.

When the country's Chief of Staff, General Romeo Vasquez, refused to comply with the president's orders to help organise the ballot, he was dismissed.

Mr Zelaya says he never had any interest in prolonging his power but instead was seeking to instigate fairer, perhaps guaranteed, representation for the poorest people in Honduras.

Now his odyssey to resume the presidency is over. After two failed attempts by air and foot, he did manage to return to the country - hidden in the boot of a car - last September. He then took refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

Outside influence

Some argue that what happened in Honduras actually never had much to do with Manuel Zelaya but rather more to do with geo-politics.

Enrique Ortez was, briefly, foreign minister in the government which came to power in the hours after Mr Zelaya was deposed.

Honduran soldiers patrol the outside of the Brazilian embassy where Manuel Zelaya has  been holed up since September
Mr Zelaya is set to leave the Brazilian embassy to go abroad

As he walked me through the lush tropical gardens which surround his Tegucigalpa villa, the self-described Cold War warrior barely mentioned the ousted president. He was more interested in another leftist leader in this region.

"Honduras is this little country which stopped Chavez," he says, a reference to the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez.

"He wanted to extend his power all the way to the border with the United States. And we stopped him."

The elderly former ambassador to the United Nations regards Manuel Zelaya as a man who fell for Hugo Chavez's charm and subsidised oil.

And he sees President Chavez in the same way he once saw the Soviet threat.

Central Americans, he suggests, have a choice between what he describes as the "communist policies" of the Venezuelan leader or American capitalism.

He knows which side he is on.

"We are friends of the United States, and we will always be friends of the United States, in the battle against Chavez," he says.

In Mr Ortez's case, that friendship has not been mutual. Shortly after taking office he made insulting remarks about President Obama. The American embassy issued a strongly-worded complaint. Mr Ortez was fired from the foreign ministry.

But his view of recent events in Honduras as being part of an international jockeying for power is shared by some of his political opponents.

Carlos Enrique Reina spent 72 days in the Brazilian embassy with Mr Zelaya.

"The Americans were behind the coup," he said.

His theory is that, under the Bush administration, a plot was hatched to dispose of the first leftist leader in Honduras, a country which was once a quasi-colony and then a key ally of the US.

It was a plot, he suggests, which President Obama did not conceive but did inherit.

"It's like in 1962, when Kennedy was president, and the US invaded Cuba," said Mr Reina. "He was carrying out his predecessor's business too."

Relations

The US Ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, dismisses such suggestions as preposterous out-of date thinking.

"US policy has been very clear, and very bi-partisan, going back 25 years," he says. "It came to be one that was strictly focused on supporting democracy."

US reaction to the ousting of Mr Zelaya, he says, is proof of that.

"There was no hesitation. The president called it a coup. The secretary of state called it a coup. I called it a coup."

But they did not manage to reverse it. The US has instead given its full support to Porfirio Lobo, who won a convincing majority in last November's presidential elections.

Many countries, including Venezuela and Brazil, say those elections were invalid as they were carried out under the auspices of a government which came to power illegally.

But Mr Lobo, sworn in on 27 January, sees his inauguration as part of a peace-making process inside and outside Honduras.

"We can have relations with any country," he says. "But we will not be subordinate to anyone."



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