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Reporter’s Notebook: Protesters in Honduras Criticize U.S. Response to Crisis

BY newsdesk  October 10, 2009 at 11:30 AM EST

Protest at the teachers college in Tegucigalpa. Photo Credit: Marcelo Ballve

In politically divided Honduras, where two men claim the presidency, all sides appear to agree on at least one point: No one seems happy with how U.S. President Barack Obama has handled the crisis so far.

I spent my first morning in Honduras reporting on a protest organized at the teachers college in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Outside the gates of the Universidad Pedagogica Nacional Francisco Morazan, supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya massed together, preparing to march. They were confronted, across an avenue, by soldiers in camouflage and police in riot gear.

Outside the teachers college in Tegucigalpa. Photo Credit: Marcelo BallveThe protesters unfurled flags and signs denouncing the government of interim President Roberto Micheletti, but dared not begin their march within view of the security forces. Female vendors with cardboard trays of candy balanced on their heads milled about. Cars cruised past. A few honked their horns in support of the protesters.

In the middle of this gathering, which somehow seemed tense and festive simultaneously, President Obama’s name was mentioned often, since he had won the Nobel peace prize earlier that day. But far from heaping praise on the U.S. leader, the protesters criticized his White House for being slow to condemn the June 28 coup in strong terms and then being hesitant about advocating for Zelaya’s return to the presidency.

Zelaya’s supporters often point out it took nearly two months before the United States imposed meaningful sanctions on the de-facto Honduran government

Obama has done “almost nothing” to help Honduras, said Eulogio Chavez, a prominent Zelaya supporter and president of the Honduran middle school teachers’ union. Asked about President Obama’s Nobel prize, he said, “If you look at his attitude toward Honduras, he didn’t deserve the Nobel. It almost feels like he’s more on the side of the coup leaders.”

Rafael Alegria. Photo Credit: Marcelo BallveRafael Alegria, another pro-Zelaya organizer who represents the Via Campesina peasant movement, grumbled about what he considered U.S. dithering. Obama “has to redouble his efforts for peace in Latin America,” said Alegria. “The constitutional order was broken in Honduras. There are 200 police and soldiers right there who won’t let us march.”

Zelaya supporters might believe Obama has not embraced their side strongly enough. But Micheletti’s people feel the Obama White House has backed the wrong side in the dispute, and has also been heavy-handed. Micheletti allies complain the United States cut aid to Tegucigalpa even though Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

It’s an interesting role reversal, said political pundit Matias Funez, speaking the same night on Dialogos de Altura, a talk show on local channel TV 12.

Zelaya sympathizers, who are left-leaning, want more energetic U.S. involvement. Micheletti’s people, more to the right, seem to want the U.S. to stay out of the dispute altogether. In the not-so-distant past, left and right would have had opposite stances, Funez said.

After the protest, I jumped in a taxi, which made its way through the verdant, mountain-ringed capital to a six-story government building, where I met with Martha Lorena Alvarado, the deputy foreign minister.

Obama’s administration blundered when it opposed Zelaya’s ouster and demanded his reinstatement, she said. Alvarado believes the White House was taken by surprise by the events in Honduras, and so quickly ceded leadership on Honduras to the Organization of American States.

She said the OAS rushed to condemn Micheletti, but did not understand the events leading to Zelaya’s ouster. She painted Zelaya as an undemocratic rogue, who trampled Honduran laws in his effort to push through a referendum that would have asked voters whether they wanted to elect an assembly to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya, Alvarado said, desired a new constitution to be able to seek re-election, which is forbidden under Honduran law. (Zelaya denies he wanted re-election.)

Later in the day, the protesters at the teachers college secretly stole away in twos and threes so as to not attract attention, and gradually reassembled in front of the hotel where negotiators allied with Micheletti and Zelaya have been trying to hammer out a solution to the crisis (the main sticking point is Zelaya’s reinstatement as president). Eventually, the police and soldiers caught up with the protesters, and dispersed them with tear gas and a high-pressure water hose.

The Honduran political crisis escalated rapidly in late September after Zelaya snuck back into the country to rally his supporters. He ended up seeking refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

Zelaya’s negotiators give an Oct. 15 deadline for a solution to the standoff. After that, they say they’ll take to the streets and stage protests. Previously scheduled Nov. 29 presidential elections seem up in the air for now, though Micheletti insists they’ll go forward.

The United States has threatened to withhold recognition of that election if the dispute isn’t resolved.

Editor’s Note: The reporting from Honduras involves a partnership between the NewsHour and New America Media.