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Reporter’s Notebook: Opponents View Zelaya as Polarizing Figure

BY newsdesk  October 20, 2009 at 10:15 AM EST

Vendor selling Honduran flags. Photo Credit: Marcelo Ballve

Those who oppose Manuel Zelaya, the ousted Honduran president, do so for a variety of reasons, but they all boil down to a discomfort with the aggressive manner in which Zelaya wielded power.

For some, Zelaya was a populist who pandered to the poor and wanted to lead Honduras down the road of Latin American socialism, much like President Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela.

“It doesn’t require a sophisticated, in-depth political analysis to realize what Zelaya wanted for Honduras, he wanted 21st century socialism,” said Edgardo Dumas Rodriguez, a prominent lawyer, former defense minister and co-founder of La Tribuna, an influential daily newspaper.

Zelaya polarized Honduras along class lines, making it “a virtue to be poor, and a cardinal sin to be rich,” according to Dumas.

Others think the Zelaya-Chavez comparison is overblown, but allege Zelaya trampled the country’s laws when he began pushing for a referendum on whether a constitutional assembly should revise the 1982 Honduras Constitution.

Some believe Zelaya’s ultimate goal was re-election, although he denies it. The current constitution holds Honduran presidents to a single four-year term.

Finally, there are those who are quite simply afraid, fearful of what might become of Honduras if “Mel,” as Zelaya is affectionately called by his supporters, gets back in the presidential palace.

On June 28, Zelaya was toppled and sent into exile by the Honduran military, with the backing of the Congress and the Supreme Court — both of which accused him of breaking Honduran law by promoting the referendum. The same day, veteran legislator Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as Zelaya’s replacement, to lead an interim government.

The Organization of American States has brokered talks between negotiators representing Zelaya and Micheletti, in the hopes a political deal will allow Hondurans to put the political crisis behind them and begin to rally around elections scheduled for Nov. 29.

The talks, which resumed this week, revolve around whether Zelaya might be reinstated as president, with circumscribed powers, as part of a unity government. He would serve until the next presidential inauguration slated for Jan. 27, 2010.

Specifically, negotiations have stuck on whether Zelaya’s reinstatement needs approval from the Supreme Court or the Congress. Micheletti’s side wants the court to decide, claiming Zelaya’s ouster and possible restitution is a legal matter.

For Zelaya’s negotiators, it’s a political issue that should be decided by the 128-member Congress, which on June 28 approved a measure stripping Zelaya of the presidency, and transferring it to Micheletti.

It is believed the Supreme Court is less amenable to Zelaya’s reinstatement than the Congress.

Zelaya had threatened to pull out of negotiations if there was no solution Monday, and Hondurans worry their country will be plunged into chaos if the talks collapse.

Interim Interior Minister Oscar Raul Matute, the most powerful member of the interim government after Micheletti, said the United States and the international community, which condemned Zelaya’s ouster, don’t understand the country’s constitution.

The Honduran Constitution has certain articles that are fixed in stone, he said, and can’t be amended or removed under any circumstances. One of these is a ban on presidential re-election. Another “inviolable” article is one stating that any allowable changes to the constitution be initiated by the Honduran Congress.

“The Constitution is bulletproof on this,” he said. The “immovable” articles “are the pillars of Honduran institutions.”

According to Matute, when Zelaya moved to consult Hondurans via referendum on whether they wanted an assembly to revise the Constitution, he ran afoul of these interlocking articles, designed, in part, to prevent anyone from perpetuating themselves in power.

In the course of Honduran history, during which rulers have often clung to the presidency past their allotted time, the practice has earned a name: continuismo.

Members of Micheletti’s administration insist their successful ousting of Zelaya followed the letter of the law, though they do concede Zelaya’s consequent forced exile to Costa Rica was unlawful, and deserves investigation.

“It wasn’t a coup, it was a legitimate succession,” said Martha Lorena Alvarado, Micheletti’s deputy foreign minister. “The actions were conducted based on a state of necessity” due to Zelaya’s illegal acts.

Zelaya’s partisans, in turn, think Micheletti’s side has woven a web of disinformation to smear Zelaya because his policies — increasing the minimum wage, lowering interest rates, involving the poor in politics — posed a threat to the country’s economic elite.

The pro-Zelaya side denies that their charismatic leader, known for his trademark white rancher’s hat and full black mustache, wanted continuismo or ran afoul of the Constitution.

Eric Arrazola, a 33-year-old civil servant and gym teacher, said he’s so sure of Zelaya’s good intentions he has pledged to “cross to the other side” if one day Zelaya tries to become an autocrat.

Zelaya’s followers also dispute the Micheletti camp’s interpretation of constitutional law. The Constitution “doesn’t say anywhere that it’s illegal to consult the Honduran people about their opinions regarding the Constitution,” said Rafael Alegria, leader of the Via Campesina rural workers’ movement.

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.

A month later, negotiators are still trying to find a solution to the standoff, amidst deep distrust on both sides.

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