The push to restore Honduran president Manuel Zelaya– dragged out of bed a month ago by soldiers and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica–has reached a tense deadlock. After negotiations between coup leaders and Zelaya’s representatives brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias broke down last week, the deposed leader vowed to return to his country over land, setting out from Managua, Nicaragua, in a jeep. He arrived at the border on Friday, symbolically stepping foot on Honduran soil before returning to Nicaragua, where he remains camped just a few feet from Honduras.
For his part, Roberto Micheletti, Honduras’s de facto president, has vowed to arrest Zelaya if he tries to enter the country again. Soldiers have set up a cordon on roads leading to Nicaragua and have aggressively sought to contain Zelaya supporters, launching tear gas into gathering crowds and detaining hundreds. On Saturday a protester captured by troops the day before turned up dead. A twenty-four-hour curfew for southern Honduras remains in effect. About 500 Zelaya supporters have avoided the main roads, however, entering Nicaragua over mountainous paths to join the ousted president.
It’s a dramatic showdown, a fight for which Zelaya, who goes by the name Mel and likes to dress in a white shirt, black leather vest and white cowboy hat, seems perfectly cast. No one knows how it will end–rumors are swirling in Tegucigalpa that the military is pressuring Micheletti to agree to Arias’s proposal to allow Zelaya to return as president, as head of a reconciliation government–but it does feel that the monthlong fight to win over public opinion is coming to a head.
Honduras’s new regime has gone to great lengths to present itself to the world as democratic and constitutional, in line with the values of an open society. Micheletti and his backers claim to have acted procedurally, intervening on behalf of the courts to stop Zelaya’s Hugo Chávez-like lunge for power. The coup’s business backers even hired Lanny Davis, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, to lobby his old boss to recognize the new regime. “This is about the rule of law. That is the only message we have,” Davis said.
But in Honduras, paranoia reigns, redolent of a time when death squads ruled and anticommunism justified widespread murder. Then the perceived threat was Moscow. Today it is Caracas. “I’m against the way Zelaya was forced out of the country,” said one prominent television host the other night, “but I’m also against Hugo Chávez coming here and conscripting my son to serve for six years in his army.”
Then there’s Fernando–a k a Billy–Joya, a former member of Honduras’s infamous Battalion 316, a paramilitary unit responsible for the deaths of hundreds in the 1980s. Joya had previously fled the country on charges of, among other atrocities, having kidnapped and tortured six university students in 1982. But he’s resurfaced as “special security adviser” to Micheletti’s government. He’s been seen walking side by side with Micheletti in a pro-coup “March for Peace and Democracy,” and he’s appeared on local talk-shows as an “international analyst,” justifying the overthrow of Zelaya by invoking his admiration of Augusto Pinochet (lucky for Lanny Davis, Joya stays off CNN). And none other than Pinochet’s daughter Lucia has endorsed the coup, praising Micheletti for continuing her father’s legacy, fittingly so since the International Observation Mission–made up of representatives from fifteen European and Latin American human rights organizations–has warned of ongoing “grave and systematic” political persecution.