Zelaya Returns to Honduras (Updated)

Updated as of 11:00 a.m. EDT, September 23

It was reported that water and electricity to the Brazilian embassy were turned off only briefly yesterday and that food has been sent in. The President of Honduras stated that Zelaya can stay in the embassy "for five to ten years" if he wishes. He said that "Zelaya will never return to be president of this country" but that he is willing to talk with him -- but only if he recognizes the validity of the November 29 elections -- and that he will face legal action. At least eighty-five diplomats and Zelaya supporters left the Brazilian embassy last night, and the curfew imposed on September 21 has been extended "indefinitely."

Zelaya had been scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly today but is "otherwise engaged.”

The means used by Zelaya to return to Honduras remain a mystery. There has been speculation that Zelaya was a passenger on a Venezuelan plane that landed without authorization on Sunday night in El Salvador and was met by a car belonging to the Salvadoran governing party. An article in International Business Daily cited the speculation and suggested that Venezuelan el Presidente Chávez must in some way have been involved. It noted:

All evidence points to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who first announced the return and, as Zelaya's closest ally, once saw Honduras as part of his "Bolivarian" empire. More important than just a vote in the UN, Honduras was useful to him as a shipping route for Colombia's FARC drug traffickers, key Chavez allies.

Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda reports that former Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin arranged for Zelaya to be spirited back in a car trunk, with Nicaraguan help.

If so, it wouldn't be surprising. As one of three Venezuelan officials designated drug "kingpins" in an official Treasury Department report, and thus subject to arrest, he would likely have knowledge of smuggling routes into Honduras from his associates.

The Wall Street Journal observed, correctly I think, that:

This remarkable diplomatic pressure against a small Central American ally has only reinforced Mr. Zelaya's refusal to compromise short of a return to the presidency, with all of the instability and potential for violence that could involve. It also probably encouraged him to gamble on returning to Honduras on Monday, figuring even that provocation won't endanger U.S. support. And so far it hasn't.

Now that he is back, Mr. Zelaya and his allies aren't calling for calm. His supporters have flocked to Brazil's embassy with cinder blocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. "The fatherland, restitution or death," he shouted to demonstrators outside the embassy. In anticipation of trouble and with concern for public safety, President Roberto Micheletti announced a curfew. But when police tried to enforce the curfew, the zelayistas resisted and there is now a Honduran standoff.

On Monday Mr. Zelaya said he owed his return and political survival to "the support of the international community." He's getting support from Nicaragua's Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla group FMLN in El Salvador, and especially from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But let's face it: None of that support would mean very much without the diplomatic and sanctions muscle of the U.S.

So nothing much is happening at the moment, and it seems as though Honduras has decided to leave Zelaya hanging in whatever wind may be blowing in the Brazilian embassy.

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Updated as of 1:25 PM EDT, September 22:

President Lula of Brazil this morning spoke with former President Zelaya and asked him "not to provide a pretext for coup leaders to invade the Brazilian embassy." It has been reported by BBC that the situation around the Brazilian embassy is presently relatively calm and that according to the interim deputy foreign minister of Honduras, "in the next few hours Brazil would either hand him [Zelaya] over or grant him political asylum." She also said that, despite the international condemnation of the removal of Zelaya from office:

... that does not permit any embassy to use its diplomatic territory ... to urge a civil uprising. ... It is fine that they support Zelaya's return but by force is not the way to proceed. ... When Mr. Zelaya was sent into exile, it was precisely to avoid what you are seeing now, disturbances directed by him.

There have been no reports of any attempt by Honduran authorities to enter the Brazilian embassy. However:

At least two tear-gas canisters landed inside the embassy compound, Reuters reported, and Mr. Zelaya said in a television interview with Telesur, a Venezuelan broadcaster, that he foresaw "bigger acts of aggression and violence" by the de facto government and possibly even an invasion of the Brazilian embassy.

A couple of errant tear-gas canisters, fired to disperse the mob of Zelaya supporters and apparently getting into the embassy grounds, hardly seems an act of "aggression and violence." According to Mr. Zelaya, in an interview with Telesur:

Interim authorities were cutting off all supplies to the embassy. "I think they are going to employ a strategy of asphyxiating the embassy by surrounding it, cutting off the food supply, asphyxiating the people inside in order to demonstrate their force and power, and to try and humiliate the people in here who are really trying to find a solution, for dialogue at a national level."

There have been no reports of arrests or injuries, and aside from Mr. Zelaya's comments broadcast on Venezuelan Telesur, there has been no sign of any cut off of the Brazilian embassy. Had there been, the Brazilian government would most likely have condemned it; there have been no reports that it has done so.

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On Monday, upon learning of the return of former President Zelaya to Honduras, Secretary Clinton said that:

[Zelaya's] surprise return to Honduras offers an opportunity to end the country's political crisis.

Now that President Zelaya is back it would be opportune to restore him to his position under appropriate circumstances, get on with the election that is currently scheduled for November, have a peaceful transition of presidential authority and get Honduras back to constitutional and democratic order.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias concurred, saying: "I think this is the best opportunity, the best time, now that Zelaya is back in his country."

Maybe, or maybe it's a Hail Mary pass, which sometimes works but sometimes fails. In any event, the pressure is on, and the United States also called for restraint. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza did so as well and said that he would go to Honduras "as soon as possible, probably on Tuesday." However, the director of civil aviation of Honduras announced that all international flights to and from Honduras have been canceled due to the crisis until further notice. It was not indicated whether a special dispensation would be given for Secretary General Insulza.

Brazil, whose relations with Zelaya-backer Hugo Chávez are rocky at times, hopes to help resolve the situation:

In New York, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said he was hopeful Zelaya's return could start a new stage in negotiations to end the Honduran crisis and said his country was happy to play a role in any future settlement.

It seems likely that Mr. Zelaya's surprise return to Honduras and the aftermath may upstage President Obama's anticipated historic plans for his appearances at the United Nations.

Honduran President Roberto Micheletti spoke on television, saying that there had been no violence and asking the people to keep it that way. He also said:

It is not clear why Mr. Zelaya has returned to Honduras, only he knows. But I can only arrive at the conclusion that he trying to impede the celebration of our upcoming elections on the 29th of November, as he and his followers have been doing in the last weeks.

However, his presence in the country does not alter the commitment of all Hondurans to the electoral process which commenced close to a year ago during his (Zelaya’s) own term.

It will culminate with the elections of the 29th of November.