OCOTAL, Nicaragua – Hondurans answered their ousted president’s call this week to cross the border and support him in his bid to return to power despite a curfew that has militarized Honduras’ southern border with Nicaragua.
President Manuel Zelaya has set up camp on the Nicaraguan side of the border, calling for an “insurrection” to maintain pressure on the acting Honduran government, which took power on June 28 after the Honduran military shot down the door of his Tegucigalpa home, rousted him from bed at gunpoint and sent him on a plane to Costa Rica.
“This has evolved from a coup into authoritarian rule,” Zelaya told reporters during a trip to explore the mountainous terrain near the Honduran border 30 days after his ouster. He vowed to set up base camps along the border where his supporters will have access to water, food and medical attention as they hike through the hills into Nicaragua, avoiding military road checkpoints.
“Walk to the border,” he told supporters this week “and don’t be afraid of the soldiers; they’re Honduran people, too.”
Zelaya’s call for dissent has brought Honduras’ political crisis to this border region, once a Cold War battleground where United States-backed Contras based in Honduras fought Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista rebel leader and one of Zelaya’s closest allies, has provided Zelaya’s border-crossing supporters with medical attention and has chided the acting Honduran government, led by former legislator Roberto Micheletti, for its troop buildup along the border.
In setting up camp in northern Nicaragua, Zelaya has irritated Ortega’s domestic opponents. Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, who lost the Managua mayoral election in November of last year amid allegations the ruling Sandinista government rigged the vote, traveled to Tegucigalpa on Tuesday to meet with Micheletti. Four legislators from Montealegre’s Nicaraguan Democratic Party (BDN) attempted to confront Zelaya at the Nicaraguan border this week with a letter protesting his “attack on Nicaraguan sovereignty,” but a crowd of Ortega supporters blocked their SUV on the highway.
Zelaya left Managua for the border last week after talks mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in San José came to a standstill (TT, July 24). Negotiators for the acting Honduran government, which has staunchly refused Zelaya’s demands to be restored to the presidency, said they would analyze a new Arias proposal, known as the San José Agreement. Arias met this week with leaders from Central America, Mexico and Colombia in the Costa Rican beachside resort of Hacienda Pinilla in a push to shore up regional support for the 12-point proposal. The agreement would allow Zelaya to finish out the last six months of his term, and it would move elections scheduled for November up a month to October, and give Zelaya and coup leaders a temporary amnesty (see separate story, page 1).
Donning daily his signature Stetson cowboy hat, Zelaya was emboldened this week as more supporters trickled across the border and after the Honduran military released a communiqué last weekend saying it supports the San José talks.
Even as Micheletti said in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal on July 27 that talks mediated by Arias are “the way forward,” Zelaya said talks have failed and he would remain at the border to maintain pressure on Micheletti.
Zelaya said 3,000 supporters have crossed into Nicaragua, though only several hundred were visible in the border outpost of Las Manos and the nearby coffee town of Ocotal this week. The ousted leader stayed in the most upscale hotel in Ocotal this week, a peachcolored affair with a swimming pool that was guarded by a contingent of Nicaraguan police,while his supporters slept on mats or on the concrete floors of a gym and school converted into makeshift shelters. Some border-crossers headed back to recruit more supporters to press for Zelaya’s return.
“We’ll bring more people back,” said teacher Cristina Rivera, 27. She snuck across the border Sunday, taking a four-wheel-drive vehicle through back roads and across a river. In her hometown of San Marcos de Colón in the border area of Choloteca, banks are closed and soldiers patrol the streets, she said.
“They tell you to go back into your house,” she said. “It’s terrible over there; we’re completely repressed.”
Coffee producer Eliseo Balladares, who lives in the Nicaraguan mountain border village of Buenos Aires, says the Honduran curfew reminds him of the strict wartime clampdowns that crippled his livelihood in the 1980s.
“We’ve lived through tumult. We want peace and dialogue” said Balladares, 63. He’s surprised so many Hondurans are forging through the backcountry, which locals avoid for fear an international effort to clean the area of land mines may have missed a one hidden on the forest floor. “I’m seeing a lot of strange faces,” Balladares said, as he hauled a bag full of chiles up a steep mountain trail.
Honduran troops with riot shields guarded the border crossing at Las Manos down below.