September 22, 2009
After nearly three months of a tense standoff, exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned to his home country yesterday, sneaking across the border and taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy. His return sparked triumphant demonstrations in Tegulcigalpa by his supporters, who chanted (in Spanish), "Yes, we could!" In response, Honduran police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Also, the de facto authorities ordered that the Brazilian embassy be cut off from deliveries of supplies, which may lead to a humanitarian crisis on top of the political crisis. The Brazilan government claims that Zelaya showed up at their embassy unexpectedly. President "Lula" da Silva has expressed support for Zelaya, but it is unlikely that they want to bring about an international conflict by taking sides in the Honduran dispute. He says he favors a negotiated settlement. See the BBC.
The U.S. reaction has been low-key thus far. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly urged "all parties to remain calm and avoid actions that might provoke violence..." He also expressed appreciation for the de facto government's pledge to respect diplomatic premises. See state.gov.
Zelaya was deposed at the end of June after the Congress and Supreme Court authorized the armed forces to evict him from the presidential palace. Since then, Roberto Micheletti has served as president but has not been recognized by the U.S. government. Zelaya made a symbolic step inside Honduran territory in late July, but quickly withdrew to avoid being arrested by the border guards.
There have been recent signs that the dispute was heading toward a climax. Several days ago, the U.S. government revoked the visas of the acting president of Honduras and other top officials, thereby preventing them from attending the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders. See CNN.com. This move was no doubt prompted by the desire to avoid giving any more legitimacy to the de facto interim government of Honduras, which has been standing in spite of economic boycotts. Earlier this month, Honduras expelled all Argentine diplomats; see BBC.
Zelaya's surreptitious return to Honduras raises many questions. Were border guards bribed into allowing him access? Was he wearing a costume? Were the economic sanctions causing so much hardship inside Honduras that some government officials or security personnel "defected"? Until more details emerge, it will be hard to assess the situation accurately. Whatever his immediate intentions, Zelaya bears a heavy burden in persuading his devoted followers to refrain from violent means. Honduras is lucky to have avoided large-scale death toll thus far, but conditions could quickly deteriorate if Zelaya opts for a high-risk approach to take back power by any means.
In Latin American history, deposed presidents or persecuted dissident leaders have taken refuge in the embassies of sympathetic countries many times. In Peru, the leader of the APRA movement Victor Raul Haya de la Torre spent the late 1940s and early 1950s in the embassy of Colombia. Other times, fugitive leaders have sought the protection of the Catholic Church, as the case of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega when the United States forced him out in December 1989.
A rather trivial cultural dispute broke out between Bolivia and Peru recently. At a beauty pageant, Miss Peru, Karen Schwarz (!), wore a native American "devil" costume that is part of the traditional folk dance. In response, the Bolivian culture minister, Pablo Groux, threatened to file a grievance at the International Court of Justice, apparently on the grounds that it was an infringement of national cultural heritage. See the BBC.