The two men claiming to be the Honduran president retreated behind closed doors on Thursday to resolve a conflict that’s gripped the country since a military coup 12 days ago.
Heading into the talks, neither man was optimistic about a quick resolution, telling media sources the negotiation process would not include “the return of ex-president (Manuel) Zelaya,” according tode facto president Roberto Micheletti, and “(negotiation) is equivalent to accepting conditions of a criminal who violated your family,” in the words of Zelaya.
But, with their country in a state of siege and the international community clamoring for the reinstallation of constitutionally elected “Mel” Zelaya, the rival Honduran leaders agreed to a mediation process which began on Thursday.
President Oscar Arias, who had been tapped to lead the dialogue, chose his home in Rohrmoser as a venue.
“Costa Rica is very pleased to help its brother-country Honduras solve this problem,” he said. “The people of Honduras do not deserve to have more blood shed and I do not want to see more innocent people dying in the streets of Tegucigalpa.”
On Thursday Zelaya and Micheletti met separately with Arias, while reporters clung to the gates outside his house in the western San José neighborhood, waiting for any news of progress.
By press time, there was still no sign of a resolution, although Michiletti told reporters after the meeting that that he was leaving a commission in charge of continuing the dialogue. Micheletti met with Arias for approximately three hours before leaving for Honduras Thursday evening. Zelaya had spent 30 minutes meeting with Arias earlier in the day.
Costa Rica’s Role
For Oscar Arias, who has long argued for disarmament, peace and dialogue in the place of armed conflicts and military strife, the opportunity to lead the mediation process appears to be an ideal role.
The Nobel Peace Prize recipient – who established a peace foundation with his prize money from the Nobel Prize, who presides over one of the few countries that dissolved its arm forces and which is the proud host to the United Nations University of Peace – was also selected for his apparent even-handedness in the process.
“He’s gained the trust of both sides of the conflict,” said analyst Eduardo Ulibarri, who served as former editor of the daily La Nación. “In the wake of the coup, he condemned the military actions of the coup leaders – appropriately. Yet, on the other hand, it is evident that he is very far from the political positions of Zelaya.”
Leaders in Washington, D.C., agree Arias is the right man for the job.
“We think there needs to be a specific mediator,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a meeting with the press. “…And to that end we are supporting President Arias to serve in this important role…Not only (does he) have a lot of experience, going back many years, as a mediator…but he is the current president of (the Central American Integration System) SICA.”
Frank McNeil, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, called the United States’ supporting role in the process “strategically smart” and that the players couldn’t have agreed on a better person to mediate the process.
“He is the most qualified person in the western hemisphere to do this,” said McNeil, who watched Arias during the peace talks in the 1980s. “He is a good listener, he is tactful and he has experience…Can he pull it off? I don’t know.”
A Country in Conflict
Ousted President Manuel Zelaya arrived at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport Wednesday; the same place he had touched down just 10 days earlier, still dazed and disorientated after being roused from his sleep by military personnel and hustled out of the country.
Zelaya was deposed under accusations that, by pushing for a public poll on the question of constitutional reform, he was working towards rewriting the constitution to extend his term in office. Under Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, a president who seeks reelection faces automatic suspension from office without a trial or impeachment process. Zelaya claims he was simply seeking to poll voters regarding the possibility of reforming the constitution.
Roberto Micheletti, president of the Honduran Congress, stepped in to his place, introduced a curfew, directed soldiers to man the streets and allegedly controlled what was published by media outlets.
But the international community has turned on the coup leaders, refusing to recognize the new government, implementing temporary trade embargoes and suspending aid, leaving the de facto government in the uncomfortable position of being forced to negotiate.
“Though Zelaya has the support of countries outside of Honduras, the advantage is with the de facto government right now because they are there,” Ulibarri said. “And the longer they are there the more successful they’ll be at asserting their authority.”
The Peace Process
In the days leading up to the mediation, Oscar Arias would not speak in detail about strategies or any perceived solutions.
But he did express confidence in the ability of the involved parties to come to an agreement through dialogue. “We will notleave until we have a solution,” he said.
Others weren’t so sure.
“There are opportunities for success. But, at this point, it’s about 50-50 chance,” Ulibarri said. “I guess we will see.”
Just off a plane from Honduras on Wednesday afternoon, Jessica Figueroa, a journalist from Honduras’ La Prensa, said few expect a resolution to come from these dialogues.
“In reality, no one thinks that Arias can accomplish a resolution,” she said.
“President Zelaya and President Micheletti are not friends. Well, they were friends once, but it ended very badly… Zelaya and Micheletti are standing firm and no one thinks they’ll waver.”
The controversies are so ingrained in the positions of either side that untangling them won’t be done willingly, McNeil said.
“It’s quite possible that both sides will refuse to yield because they have blood in their eyes,” McNeil said. “But if this process is going to be successful, both sides will have to lose. There can be no winners in this. The only possible winners will be the Honduran people…which means that both (Zelaya and Micheletti) will have to back off their current positions.”
Zelaya held to a hard line delivering statements to the press minutes after arriving in Costa Rica Wednesday night, accompanied by Patricia Rodas, who served as Honduras’ foreign minister until the coup. Zelaya said that Micheletti is a “de facto, golpista (coup leader) president who already has crimes under his belt because there have been murders of youths in the protests.” Zelaya was referring to Isis Obed, a protester who was shot dead during a rally near Honduras’ Toncontín airport last Sunday, when the military blocked Zelaya’s jet from landing.
Micheletti, who has vowed to arrest Zelaya if he sets foot in Honduras, seemed willing to talk in San José, but only on his terms. “We are open to dialogue as long as it does not involve the return of President Zelaya,” he said earlier this week, according to The Miami Herald.
However, under the surface, both men understand they need to come to some kind of agreement. Zelaya holds the keys to the international community, and isolated from the greater world, his opposition knows it can’t sustain itself, while Micheletti has the reins of the country between his fingers.
The World is Watching
Oscar Arias knows that he has the power to turn the tide on the region’s militaristic past. If he’s able to achieve a resolution, he proves to the wider world that Central America is no longer an area characterized by coup d’états and civil wars.
But he drives home a much greater message – one that he’s dedicated a career to represent – and that is the idea that no country needs armed forces; that conflicts can be resolved through dialogue; and that militaries only serve as a threat to democracy.
Standing before human rights scholars earlier this week, he used a favorite line when it comes to disarmament: “More helicopter gunships, more fighterjets, more rockets and more troops will not bring a single crust of bread for our families, not a single desk for our schools, not a single medicine for our clinic.
On the contrary, it will only serve to destabilize a region that continues to rely only on the military as the arbitrator of social conflicts.”
UPDATES: To see the latest news regarding the evolving mediation process, visit The Tico Times online at ticotimes.net.