(CNSNews.com) – Honduras was on a political knife-edge overnight Monday after ousted president Manuel Zelaya slipped back into the country, took refuge at the Brazilian embassy and said he would seek talks with the interim government to “restore democracy.”
Evidently caught off guard by his surprise return, interim government leaders at first denied he was back in the country.
After the U.S. State Department and then the Brazilian authorities confirmed that Zelaya was in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, President Roberto Micheletti said later in the day that his presence “changes nothing.”
Zelaya timed his clandestine homecoming just two days before he is scheduled to address gathered world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
In a statement confirming his return and released by the Honduran Embassy in Washington, Zelaya said he anticipated strong support and “forceful resolutions” at the U.N. this week.
The Obama administration and the international community backed Zelaya’s charge that he was ousted unlawfully in a “coup” on June 28 and isolated Honduras as a result. At the Honduran Embassy in Washington, an official loyal to Zelaya was installed after the State Department revoked the credentials of the ambassador for supporting the Micheletti-led government.
The Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras’ membership, the first time the pan-regional body had taken such action since Cuba was suspended in 1962 after the communist takeover.
Honduras’ interim government contends that Zelaya’s removal, by troops acting on the orders of the Supreme Court and with the approval of parliament, was constitutional, and that it followed his violation of the constitution by pressing for an extension of presidential term limits.
Throughout the three-month crisis, Zelaya’s backers have painted him as a romantic figure, crisscrossing the region lobbying for support against a recalcitrant military-backed regime which some suggested had covert links to right-wing elements in the U.S.
Zelaya, a former timber magnate and rancher with a fondness for cowboy hats, described his trip back to Honduras in dramatic terms, telling a Venezuelan television station that he had overcome hundreds of obstacles over a four-day period.
His Venezuelan ally, President Hugo Chavez , added to the narrative, saying a “heroic” Zelaya and four unidentified companions had traveled “for two days overland, crossing mountains and rivers, risking their lives.”
Last July, Chavez coordinated an unsuccessful bid by Zelaya to fly back to Tegucigalpa.
Zelaya went ahead with the attempt despite the strongly-expressed advice of the U.S. and other OAS member states. Authorities on the ground would not allow the ousted president to land, and during protests at the airport troops shot dead one of his supporters.
Amid concerns about violent street protests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday reiterated earlier appeals for calm. “Both sides have supporters who need to be restrained and careful in their actions in the days ahead,” she said in New York.
Honduran media reported late Monday that Zelaya supporters were said to be traveling from the country’s interior towards the capital, where crowds gathered earlier outside the Brazilian embassy. The government warned that Brazil would be responsible if any violence erupted in the area.
With a diplomatic spat brewing, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, also in New York, said his country’s role in Zelaya’s return was limited to offering him refuge in response to a request made shortly before his arrival.
‘Respect the remainder of his term’
It was unclear on Monday evening what the next steps in the unfolding saga would be, but the OAS held an emergency session Monday and in a statement afterwards called on the authorities to ensure Zelaya’s safety and his return to the presidency.
The U.S. State Department also repeated the administration’s view that Zelaya remains the “democratically elected and constitutional leader of Honduras.”
However, armed forces head Romeo Vasquez Velasquez voiced his continuing support for the government headed by Micheletti.
At the height of the political standoff last June, Velasquez refused to allow the army to help Zelaya conduct a referendum on amending term limits. The military chief pointed to a Supreme Court ruling that the president’s move violated the constitution.
Zelaya on June 24 fired Velasquez, ignored a Supreme Court order the following day that he be reinstated, and went ahead with his plan. He and a group of supporters broke into a facility where ballot materials – provided by Chavez – were being stored, and began to distribute them despite the court’s directives.
Three days later, hours before the referendum polls were due to open, troops removed Zelaya from his home, put him on a military aircraft and flew him to Costa Rica. The Supreme Court later that day issued a statement saying the army had acted on its orders.
As legislative speaker, Micheletti was next in the constitutional line of succession, and lawmakers voted him interim president until elections scheduled for November 29 produce a successor, to take office from January.
An internationally-backed mediation bid failed after Micheletti’s government refused to allow Zelaya to return and said if he did so he would be arrested and charged.
The U.S. and other governments have indicated that they will not recognize the outcome of the November election if it takes place absent Zelaya’s restoration to his position.
Clinton said Monday that Zelaya should now be restored to his position “under appropriate circumstances.”
“We just want to see this matter resolved peacefully, with an understanding that there will be the remainder of President Zelaya’s term to be respected, that the elections can go on, that there will be a peaceful transfer of power,” she said.
Earlier, a group of House Republicans introduced a sense of Congress resolution calling on the administration to recognize the legitimacy of the election.
“Instead of discrediting these elections which have yet to take place, the U.S. and responsible nations should be working with the appropriate authorities in Honduras to ensure that the elections are free, fair, democratic and transparent,” said Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the measure’s sponsor and ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Honduras’ constitution limits the presidency to a single term and prohibits not just extending the limits, but even proposing that they be changed.
Article 239 reads, “Anyone who violates this provision or who proposes its reform, as well as those who support that violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease to hold their respective positions, and will be disqualified from any public post for 10 years.”